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Bold plans call for an ‘engineering epicenter’ at the university

EERC Rendered View Northwest Corner

In today’s ever-changing world, one thing is increasingly clear: The need for innovative engineers has never been greater. Scientists and engineers make up only 4 percent of the U.S. workforce, but their work contributes to as much as 85 percent of the gross domestic product. Preparing inventive, technically savvy engineers for a global economy is an enormous responsibility, and UT is answering the call. The Cockrell School of Engineering is educating more than 7,700 students at any given time, graduating 1,600 a year. But it is doing so in outdated facilities and laboratories.

To catalyze a culture of innovation, and at the same time propel a national top-10 engineering program into the top five, the Cockrell School has bold plans for a new educational approach and new space: the Engineering Education and Research Center, or EERC. At a total cost of $310 million, the EERC will replace an obsolete building with 430,000 square feet of open and flexible space for interdisciplinary teaching, research, and hands-on project learning. The EERC’s open lab design will allow visitors — including K-12 students, employers, and industry leaders — to become part of the engineering experience.

“The EERC will serve as a campus anchor of intellectual curiosity and energy, a platform for transforming collaboration and innovation at UT,” says Cockrell School Dean Gregory L. Fenves. “It will provide a modern, stimulating atmosphere equal to the excellence of our students and their extraordinary potential.”

Educating for the 21st Century

Design Lab Interior

Project design labs in the EERC will provide thousands of square feet of flexible space for learning and discovery.

Over the long run, a university’s faculty defines its character and has the greatest influence on its students and the future. State-of-the-art facilities are critical to attracting and retaining faculty talent in a competitive market. Unfortunately, the Cockrell School, one of the world’s leading engineering programs, is training tomorrow’s leaders in exhausted and overcrowded buildings that are functionally obsolete and lack flexible spaces for creating technology.

As the headquarters for a new ecosystem of faculty and student entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs-in-residence, venture capitalists, and industry leaders, the EERC will expand the “teaching by doing” curriculum and foster a collaborative network to move revolutionary ideas from the lab to the marketplace. Bright minds from across campus and from industry partners will gather to address challenges in energy, health care, manufacturing, infrastructure, and space and earth engineering. Interdisciplinary faculty teams will gain access to ?these labs to create new technology and innovative ways to solve important problems.

Engineering Satellite Lab

Students work in the UT Satellite Design Lab.

Through hands-on projects, engineering students learn about problem solving, as well as the importance of teamwork, meeting deadlines, managing budgets, and dealing with adversity — ideal preparation for ?the demands of the workplace. Currently, most students in the Cockrell School participate in a design project their senior year only. The school’s vision is to have every student involved in a project every year — a critical component to recruitment and improved retention of students in engineering.

This vision will be possible only by building the EERC, where undergraduates will design and build everything from unmanned aerial vehicles and solar cars to potable water distribution systems for underserved communities. The scope and range of student projects will expand dramatically in 23,000 square feet of new teaching lab space.

Fenves says the combination of a project-based learning and the EERC’s flexible space will open up untold possibilities for discovery. “The mixing of ideas, people, and laboratories at the boundaries of disciplines is where the most intriguing and productive ideas and learning experiences are found.”

The EERC also will be the new home for the Cockrell School’s largest department, Electrical and Computer Engineering, currently housed in the Engineering-Science Building (ENS), which was built 50 years ?ago when vacuum tubes were the latest technology. The department will have 100,000 square feet of modern teaching and laboratory space for its 65 faculty, 650 graduate students, and 1,300 undergraduates. ENS will come down to make room for the EERC.

“Renovating ENS was not an option,” says Pat Clubb, UT’s vice president for university operations. “Deferred maintenance, inadequate electrical and mechanical systems, along with insufficient space for the level of research and teaching the school conducts currently and will conduct in the future — all of these make renovation a cost-prohibitive prospect. Instead we’ve opted to replace ENS with a facility that will meet the university’s needs for the foreseeable future.”

Engineers Make a Difference

A Cockrell School student demonstrates engineering concepts at Explore UT

A Cockrell School student demonstrates engineering concepts at Explore UT.

Right now, UT students, faculty, and researchers are:

  • Enhancing satellite data analysis to respond faster and more accurately to natural disasters
  • Using supercomputers to model human blood flow, improve oil and gas recovery, and protect groundwater
  • Expediting research methods to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • Creating longer-lasting batteries for electronics, electric vehicles, and large-scale energy storage
  • Building advanced prosthetics for injured soldiers

Private Investment is Key

The EERC project will cost $310 million, with two-thirds coming from the UT System Board of Regents, The University of Texas at Austin and/or the state of Texas. The Board of Regents has committed $105 million in Permanent University Fund (PUF) bond funding, and in August 2012 the board approved the building design — a significant milestone. Unlike in the past, state universities now need the support of the private sector for new facilities. The Cockrell School is working hard to raise the $105 million in philanthropic funding from individuals, foundations, and corporations that is needed to begin construction.

“The U.S. has been the world’s leading economic power because of our strengths in engineering, science, and math,” says S. Javaid Anwar, founder and CEO of Midland Energy and Petroplex Energy and, with his wife, Vicky, parent of twins Ryan Anwar, BS ’12, and Leslie Anwar, BBA ’12, who graduated from the Cockrell School and McCombs School of Business respectively.

“But we are falling behind,” Anwar says. “That is why I chose to invest $4 million in the EERC. Singapore, about the size of New York City, has pledged $35 billion to their university research and science alone. If a country of that size can do that, surely we can do more in Texas.”

Construction of the EERC is expected to take four years. Depending on fundraising progress, it could begin within a year, allowing the building to welcome its first occupants in 2017. UT leaders are confident that when complete the EERC will unleash the potential of students and faculty alike, fueling groundbreaking discoveries and making a lasting economic impact for Texas and the nation.

“Go all over the world and there are Cockrell School engineers doing what we say they’ll do — they’re changing the world,” says UT President Bill Powers. “The EERC is the ‘what starts here’ part. The research and teaching that will take place there will create the engineers and innovators of the future.”

Learn more about the EERC and how to support it.

See also:

An Investment in the Workforce of the Future: EERC Receives $10 Million Gift for National Instruments Student Project Center.

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