Breaking Ground

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It was a rare, frozen-breath kind of day on campus, but even the brisk weather couldn’t stop the inevitable: The Cockrell School of Engineering is getting a makeover. At Thursday’s 3 p.m. groundbreaking ceremony for the new Engineering Education and Research Center, the Cockrell School celebrated the culmination of an idea that began seven years ago: to provide 430,000 square feet of open and flexible space to the students enrolled in the top engineering program in the state.

There were four orange chairs atop the stage, in front of which sit four matching cowboy hat-shaped construction helmets. Leaning against the stage were four pristine shovels, with chrome spades shining in whatever is left of the afternoon sun. Four flat-screen televisions displayed an identical rendering of the new EERC. Student engineering projects flanked the stage, like Dreamer the robot and the UT Solar Vehicle Team car.

According to everyone in attendance, including a Cockrell student representative, senior Anuj Kudva, it was about time this thing gets underway.

“Its best days are about four decades behind us,” said Kudva, president of the Student Engineering Council, of the old Engineering-Science Building. The remark elicited not only a roar of laughter, but a sea of nodding heads in recognition of the obsolescence of the old building.

Joining Kudva on stage were Cockrell School Dean Sharon Wood, UT-Austin President Bill Powers, and new UT System Chancellor Admiral Bill McRaven. The loudest cheers, apart from the ones following Kudva’s remark, were for the introduction of the new chancellor, and when Wood, the first to speak, announced that the new building’s design and construction are “on-time and under-budget.”

Wood talked of the statewide need for more engineers, noting that the new facilities will allow Cockrell to admit up to 1,000 extra students per year. “This marks the beginning of a new era in engineering education at UT,” she said.

Bill Powers echoed Wood’s remarks, thanking some key donors to the project, including the Mulva family, for whom a new conference center and auditorium will be named, and stressing the importance of the new building.

“Our facilities had become woefully outdated,” Powers said, “and we’re on a path to correct that.”

Batting cleanup was McRaven, and as soon as he began to speak, it was clear that his eloquent speech during last year’s commencement was not an outlier.

“Maintaining the status quo at the Cockrell School is not good enough,” McRaven said, shortly after comparing this groundbreaking ceremony, the first he’s ever attended in any capacity, to the commissioning of a Navy ship. Attendees of that type of celebration are called plankowners. McRaven said that the faculty, staff, and administration at the groundbreaking of the EERC are like the plankowners of a new Navy ship, present from the date of its inception and seeing it through as it sets out to complete its objectives.

As soon as McRaven finished, the four speakers donned their hard plastic cowboy hats, each grabbed a shovel, and thrust it into a long, black planter filled to the brim with dirt. They paused, briefly, for a photo opportunity, and in that instant, orange and white confetti exploded from the top of the plastic tent, raining down upon them.

“Let the construction … begin!” a man shouted over the PA system. And just like that, a new era at the Cockrell School of Engineering was ushered in.

 Photo courtesy the Cockrell School of Engineering.

 

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