Inside UT’s New 430,000-Square-Foot Engineering Education and Research Center

Just inside the main entrance to UT’s brand new Engineering Education and Research Center (EERC), natural light spills from the windowed ceiling onto gleaming white floors, and dapples the tables occupied by students working. The shiny new space feels airy and expansive. There’s a sunlit foyer leading to three floors of classrooms, study spaces, and rooms prepped to become labs for prototyping, fabrication, imaging, robotics, and building and testing objects.

The new facility hopes to be a hub for engineering innovation on campus—an aim that’s directly built into its design. “This space is all about reinforcing the relationship between the building and the community and engineering,” explains project designer Alex O’Briant, associate partner of Ennead Architects. “Everywhere you look you see an exposed concrete structural frame, you see roof tresses that form a glass roof, you see this exposed steel on the skybridge … so no matter where you turn, there’s reinforcing of the importance of engineering in the architecture.”

Planning for the building began in 2010 and spent a year on hold before the grand opening on Sept. 28, 2017. With its limestone façade, the 432,671 square-foot building includes the public sunlit atrium, which connects two nine-story towers: one focused on interdisciplinary graduate-level research, the other on electrical and computer engineering research. “Hence the glass roof,” O’Briant says. “We said we really want to look up and see where the research is being done, equally we wanted the researchers to look across and see each other.”

That sense of connection and community is infused into the curriculum as well. “My goal is really, through classes, through the core training program, through the culture, to make it possible for students to operate like engineers from the first days they’re on campus,” says R. Scott Evans, director of the Longhorn Maker Studios in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Since launching in 2014, the Maker Studios have provided the tools for students to build projects using plasma cutters, CNC milling machines, and 3D printers, most of which will move into the new building, their use visible to observers through large glass windows. “Things that fling a lot of oil, smoke, and dust, are staying in the mechanical engineering building,” Evans says. That building, across the street, will continue to house metalworking equipment.

In the new facility, open, flat eight-foot tables provide the necessary collaboration space and large wooden storage cabinets sit on the concrete floors. Glowy natural light streams in from the floor to ceiling windows, which will allow viewers in the atrium to see students at work. Currently enrolled undergraduates and graduates, faculty and staff may use sections of the space, while machine use is limited to supervised students in the engineering school.

Over the last couple of years students have used the Maker Studios to build, test, and refine new concepts. In 2016 a group of students and recent graduates founded Nido, a startup company that makes steel frameworks for hanging hammocks. The freestanding large-scale geometric structures accommodate multiple hammocks, no trees necessary. Other students have embraced electronics. Mechanical Engineering student Jake Warren created an electronic brick-shaped device, aimed at food service, which can be used to keep food hot for five hours. He used the studios to build it and its wireless recharging base.

“We want to be a community of practice for being an engineer. And then the innovation comes from supporting that,” Evans says. Part community and give access to the tools to create. “Ultimately it’s a cultural shift that happens, from I am a student and I endure these classes and then sometime in the future I get to be an engineer. We want to shift that to I’m a prototype of an engineer now, and I’m responsible for building myself as an engineer and I have all these tools and resources around me to do it, including the other students,” Evans says.

The potential for collaboration is built into the building design as well. “We designed this space with as many different social and study spaces as possible on all three floors,” O’Briant says. And the classroom layout is meant to reinforce the design thinking process, moving from rooms centered on early stage ideation with cardboard and pipe cleaners, to testing rooms with electronic equipment, to an arena where objects can roam or fly if they need to.

The students already seem to be excited about about getting to work in the new building. “Personally, I’m looking forward to the big laser cutters,” mechanical engineering senior John Jennings says. Concentrating on a nuclear certificate, Jennings has been working at the nuclear reactor at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus, and, with Evans, planning to create a t-shirt cannon with some kick. “We have two versions, one that we have an early prototype for, dissociates water into hydrogen and oxygen and detonates the mixture to throw the t-shirt. A little bit of pyrotechnics, but it’s all quite safe,” Evans says. Always ready to launch something new.

Photos courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering/The University of Texas at Austin

 

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