Where can you host a gathering for more than 400 newly admitted students? Is there a space where State of Illinois leadership can see our research in action? Our newly invested professors need a place to celebrate after the formal ceremony. Can my small group have a space to study that’s close to our lecture? Where can we host a hackathon? And where do I have to go to get a good cup of coffee?
These are just some of the needs that the new ECE Building has fulfilled since it opened in 2014. At 235,000 square feet, the building is nearly twice the size of the department’s former location, Everitt Laboratory.
Each space in the building is designed with intentionality, focused on creating a collaborative, superlative learning and research space. The successful execution of this concept earned the building the 2016 R&D Lab of the Year distinction. The prestigious, international competition recognizes the best new and renovated laboratories that combine all aspects of the building into a superior working environment.
The building’s lobby makes a strong first impression on visitors. Tables equipped with power outlets share the space with clusters of chairs arranged to facilitate conversation. The grand staircase draws the eye to the second floor bridge and the two-story nanofabrication lab, the first of its kind for undergraduate students in the United States. Despite its impressive appearance, this lobby functions more like a home base than a detached ivory tower.
“We certainly didn’t imagine how the atrium would become so populated from day one,” said Erhan Kudeki, ECE ILLINOIS professor and associate head for undergraduate affairs/chief advisor. “The moment the tables were put there, they were occupied, and we were all amazed. It became like the living room of someone’s house. It was a delight to see this happen.”
The lobby undergoes several transformations throughout the year. In the fall, the study tables are swapped for displays from student organizations recruiting new members during Ignition, the department’s annual new student welcome event. During the year, the lobby is the location for Corporate Connections After Hours where students can meet representatives from companies to discuss internships and other opportunities. It’s also one of the many locations for Engineering Open House, connecting the public with students and their ideas.
But the first floor of the building isn’t just for large events. An array of glass windows offers a view inside the Texas Instruments Electronics Design Lab. This space is one of the best examples of how the new facility has helped shape curriculum. The named space is home to ECE 110, Introduction to Electronics, the fundamental course that serves nearly 500 students each semester, both in ECE and in other engineering disciplines.
The course took a major leap forward in 2014 thanks to expanded lab space and laboratory equipment generously donated by Texas Instruments. Senior lecturer Chris Schmitz and other faculty members have continued to search for ways to enhance the hands-on learning experience. Thanks to a grant from the College of Engineering’s Strategic Instructional Innovations Program (SIIP), the curriculum has been adjusted to ensure stronger consistency across all four lecture sections and 16 labs. Time is now allotted towards the end of lab sections for students to work on personal projects, and a merit section for underrepresented students has been formed to help students build confidence and connect.
The Open Lab, located on the second floor, is a designated space for students to explore their interests outside of typical classroom requirements. This lab is strict about its no-homework policy. Here, students are encouraged to take an active role in their education: information learned in class is applied towards projects that can result in both personal and social impact.
Linda Reinhard (BSEE ’97), VP and Market Leader for the Energy and Buildings group at Penton and a member of the ECE Alumni Board, continues to be impressed by this student-driven space.
“It is important to allow the engineers to pursue their own interests and ideas,” Reinhard said. “That is the foundation of innovation.”
Casey J Smith (BSCompE ‘99, MSEE ‘01), senior instructional lab coordinator, explained that one of the most enjoyable things about the Open Lab is seeing engineering spread across all disciplines. Any student can apply for access.
“When I was a student, there wasn’t any place to do this, you would have to do it at home, so it’s really nice to have a place where the students can come between classes to maybe fiddle around with something for a few minutes,” Smith said.
In just a few years, this space has inspired students to engage in lunar mining competitions funded by NASA, make therapeutic robot dolls, and teach high schoolers how to solder.
The new ECEB not only fosters community among current students, but it also inspires alumni. Whether returning to campus to present at Explorations, a weekly seminar for undergraduate students, or for a personal visit, many have commented on the fresh energy in the space.
“There’s definitely a sense of pride in the new building, especially for those of us that were involved in its planning and fundraising,” said Chris George (BSCompE ’97, MSEE ’99), a Chicago-based patent attorney and former ECE Alumni Board president. “It’s great to come back for alumni events in the building, rather than meeting somewhere else. We can interact with faculty and students and see what’s going on in the department when we come back to campus for a visit.”
Just like the ECE ILLINOIS community, the building continues to evolve. Installation of solar panels and an associated learning lab are goals of the target net-zero building design.
“Having a world-class facility that reflects the quality of our research and curriculum has been vital to our recruiting efforts,” said William H Sanders, department head. In fact, sixteen new faculty members joined ECE ILLINOIS this past academic year.
“Our building is a physical manifestation of our legacy. It is a place where engineers start, develop, and advance their careers,” Sanders said. “Bright minds conduct cutting-edge research here every day in spaces that facilitate innovation thanks to the generosity of our donors, corporate partners, and friends.”
This story first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Resonance, ECE ILLINOIS' semi-annual magazine.