Engineering Education and Research Center

Photo Credit: Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: Sharon Wood took over as dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering on Sept. 1. Starting October 2013, she had served as interim dean after current Provost Gregory Fenves’ promotion. The Daily Texan editorial board sat down with her recently in the first of a number of interviews with the University’s 18 school and college deans to sound her out on a number of issues of concern to students. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Texan: What would you say your main goals are for Cockrell as you get started with this new position?

Sharon Wood: We have a lot of traditional classes now where it’s lecture-based, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the most effective in trying to engage students in engineering. We want to move to having more project-based classes and hands-on learning opportunities. The trouble is right now, we’re constrained very much by our facilities. So when the EERC [Engineering Education and Research Center] opens, we will be able to have new labs that the students will be able to use for this ... That’s the number one goal, is really to try to enhance the educational experience for the undergrads.

DT: And how about for graduate students?

Wood: The north tower is going to be focused on interdisciplinary research, and right now, if you have an interdisciplinary team of faculty, we’re so tight on space. It’s hard to get all the grad students together. They’re in their departments, but they’re doing interdisciplinary research, so they don’t have as many interactions as they really should. 

DT: Could you tell us a little bit more about the importance of the EERC?

Wood: The EERC is really essential for us right now because we’re basically beyond capacity of all of our facilities. We had ENS, which they’re going to start tearing down in a couple months, where we had essentially large empty spaces — almost an entire floor — because we couldn’t provide the power for it ... We were trying to do cutting edge research in a building that just couldn’t accommodate it.

DT: It’s very commonly known that the number of women in science majors is a lot lower than men, so what are you doing to help close that gap?

Wood: Both last year and this year, we have an all-time record high of female undergraduate students in the Cockrell school, and the percentage of female students is a record high ... Our Women in Engineering Program, which has been around for about 25 years, has been incredibly successful in reaching out to K-12 students, showing them that engineering is an exciting career opportunity ... Sometimes you can attract women to come into engineering, but then they get discouraged, so [Women in Engineering runs] ... all kinds of programs to help women, support women throughout their entire time here, so that they build a community ... The school for many years has been really aggressive in trying to find female faculty members, because if you’re a young women coming into the school, and all the role models are male, you start questioning, “Well, should I be here?” but we are in some departments, we’re up over 20 percent female faculty.

DT: So switching gears a little bit, what sort of collaboration do you hope to see between Cockrell and the new medical school?

Wood: We think there’s a tremendous opportunity to work with the Dell Medical School ... They’re just in the process of selecting department chairs right now ... They have to have kind of a sense of who will be hired before they can really start making commitments on research. But we do have opportunities for joint hires and that sort of thing, which I think will help build that synergy with the med school.

DT: What sorts of opportunities are available to engineering undergraduates who want to do research?

Wood: The model across campus is what Natural Sciences does. They have that Freshman Research Initiative program. We don’t have an organized program like that, but we do have a large percent of our students who are engaged in research in the laboratories ... The reason why research is exciting is because the solution isn’t known, and so the attempts you make and the path you take to get to a solution is almost as important as coming up with a solution itself.

DT: The whole state is pushing four-year graduation rates a lot. What do y’all do particularly in your college, because engineering is a very difficult major?

Wood: It is a difficult major, and I think the culture was, “Oh, if I finish in five years or six years, it’s not that big a deal.” So we’ve really tried to focus on four-year graduations ... We’ve taken a look at the courses where we have the highest number of students who get lower than a C ... We’re putting extra resources into those... They were all outstanding students in high school, and they hit the first roadblock, and they think, “Oh, maybe engineering isn’t for me.” We’re trying to show them that, “No, if you work a little harder, you can probably get through that, and you’re going to be a great engineer.”

Qualcomm Technologies Inc. donated $1 million to the Cockrell School of Engineering to help fund the school’s Engineering Education and Research Center, which will house the Wireless Networking and Communication Group and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the University announced last week.

Associate engineering dean John Halton said a combination of independent donations and state grants is crucial to the development of school programs such as the communication group, which is an interdisciplinary center for research and education, although the companies that give these gifts also benefit.

“It’s a nice balance between philanthropy, wanting to do something good to help a top quality institution like UT … and to hire students,” Halton said. “In the case of Qualcomm, there will be students working in the wireless area, which is Qualcomm’s heart-and-soul technology. Qualcomm already employs many of these graduates.”

The research center, which is scheduled to be completed in 2017, will be 430,000 square feet, including a 299-seat auditorium, cafeteria and engineering library. It will accommodate approximately 65 faculty members, 650 graduate students and 1,300 undergraduate students.

According to Ahmed Tewfik, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department, the EERC building will cost more than $310 million and will provide labs and other research spaces for 30 to 40 percent of engineering graduate students who will work in the building.

“The donation is actually for space that is going to be used by our wireless net research center,” Tewfik said. “It’s going to pay for some of the labs and offices for students and post doctorates and meeting rooms. It will essentially provide infrastructure that our wireless research center needs to do its work. The EERC is, at the moment, one of the best in the nation.”

The communication group is working on specific projects, which include 5G networks for wireless devices and enhancing social networks, transportation and video processing. Ioannis Mitliagkas, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student and member of the group, said the research center, as well as the equipment that will come with it, will help his fellow engineers complete work more efficiently, as well as aid their research.

“In my case, I don’t need a lot of specialty equipment because most of what I do is math, but my lab mates would really need it,” Mitliagkas said. “The specialized equipment for communication, for example — it makes our lives much easier.”

Students and faculty interested in the Engineering Education and Research Center heard the construction plans and aired their potential concerns Friday.

There are two stages to the construction process, according to Kirby Kuntz, the general manager for Hensel Phelps Construction Co. The first stage consists of new and rerouted utilities, and the remodel of Cockrell Jr. Hall. These projects are to start next month and be completed by the fall semester of 2014.

“There will be a major gas line reroute,” Kuntz said. “But everything will stay operational.”

Kuntz said the construction will disturb parking, entrances to labs and pedestrian pathways.

“From ENS to Speedway will be a construction zone,” Kuntz said. “But we’re trying very hard to do most of the work there during the Christmas break.”

The second stage of construction will begin in 2014 with the demolition of three engineering buildings: the Engineering-Science Building, Academic Annex and Computer Science Annex in the engineering area on campus. Kuntz said the occupants of these buildings will move into other buildings on campus and stay there for three years until the new building is complete.

Kuntz said the new EERC building will have three levels and be 433,000 square feet. He said construction for the building will not disturb bus routes.

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

The Engineering Sciences Building — a 50-year-old facility that houses the University’s electrical engineering program — has run its life course. 

Ceilings open up to exposed pipes and wires, electrical fans cool computer servers in a hot building and a study room is closed every summer because it does not have air conditioning. In this industrial building, professors teach students 21st-century engineering without modern labs. But after several years of fundraising and planning, the Cockrell School of Engineering is set to begin constructing the $310 million Engineering Education and Research Center to replace the Engineering Sciences Building. With 430,000 square feet of classrooms, labs and offices, the new building will become the second biggest academic building behind Welch Hall. 

Engineering dean Greg Fenves said students will learn modern engineering through a hands-on approach in the new building, which will create more spaces for collaborative research. He said this is a necessity in engineering education that the college has struggled to meet with existing facilities.

“There are dramatic changes taking place in how we educate engineers. It’s moving from the classroom to the laboratory,” said Fenves, who will leave his position as dean and become the University’s provost in October. “We are severely limited by our facilities because they were never designed to do this. They were designed to teach students sitting in chairs that are bolted to the floor with a professor at the blackboard at the front.” 

The Engineering Sciences Building was built in 1963 for applied physics research. In the 50 years since, the building has become home to electrical engineering students — the Cockrell School of Engineering’s largest undergraduate program. 

Perry Durkee, the building manager who has worked in the Engineering Sciences Building for 32 years, said it has constantly been patched up with construction and renovation projects.

“It’s been in a constant state of change. The building was built for one purpose, and we have used it for another purpose,” Durkee said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of trouble trying to make it look more modern. But it’s a lost cause now.”

Fenves said the building was constructed in an age when vacuum tubes, which were retired decades ago, were used in radios, and electronic integrated circuits were much simpler with seven components rather than billions of components that make them up today. 

The lack of modern labs has hurt the engineering school’s ability to recruit top faculty, Durkee said.

“It’s impossible to say how many faculty recruits we’ve lost when they’ve come to this building to see it,” Durkee said.

Even though most of UT’s engineering buildings are older than those of other universities, including Texas A&M University and the University of California-Berkeley, the University’s engineering program has remained competitively ranked.

“We have primarily been doing well because we’ve been so successful in hiring great faculty,” Fenves said. “But that is getting tougher to do because of our facilities. We will not be able to continue without the new facilities.”

Meanwhile, Durkee said the building has several other issues, including an air conditioning system that is no longer sufficient to support the number of people who occupy the building. 

Earlier this summer, smoke from the air conditioning system caused the fire alarms to go off and led to a building evacuation. Meanwhile at the Texas Capitol, lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have provided $2.7 billion in state funding for higher education construction projects, including the proposed Engineering Education and Research Center. Following the failed bill, the UT System Board of Regents approved up to $150 million in available funds the University could borrow to supplement fundraising efforts to finance the new building earlier this month. 

The Engineering Education and Research Center is the first of nine construction projects in the school’s “Master Facility Plan,” which aims to construct six new facilities and renovate three outdated engineering buildings on campus. 

“The plan is very logical, very well laid out and visionary. But it was very clear that the first step had to be a building in the center of our engineering precinct,” Fenves said. “It had to replace [the Engineering Sciences Building].”

Unlike the current facilities, Fenves said the new building will allow for interdisciplinary research and entrepreneurial efforts, and its facilities will be adaptable to changes in engineering education.

“We don’t know exactly what kind of research is going to be done in the labs in the next 10, 20 or 50 years,” Fenves said. “It’s going to change. We’ve never had facilities like that before.” 

Associate engineering dean John Ekerdt said the University is still making final decisions on a timeline for building the new facilities, but construction on the building could begin late in 2014 or early 2015. The building is set to open in 2018.

While the building is being constructed, Fenves said the college will disperse classes, labs and faculty to other buildings. He said undergraduate instructional labs will move to Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall, and many faculty and graduate students will move to an administrative building on the corner of 17th and Guadalupe Streets.

“It’s important that everybody understand that there will be disruption, and we’re going to try to minimize it, but the benefit of that destruction is moving back to an incredible, state-of-the-art facility,” Fenves said.

slideshow courtesy of the Cockrell School of Engineering


Created with flickr slideshow.


The Engineering Education and Research Center will replace and Engineering Sceinces Building and cost $310 million to construct.


1. No more stained, ugly ceiling tiles that look like someone spilled his or her coffee.

Photo of the Engineering Sciences Building ceiling by Zachary Strain

2. It will be bigger — much bigger. And, it will also ALWAYS have blue skies over it. 

Rendering courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering.

The Engineering Education and Research Center will be 430,000 square feet, which will make it the second largest academic building on campus behind Welch Hall. The Engineering Sciences Building is 208,642 square feet.

3. The Engineering Education and Research Center will have a functional air conditioning system.

Photo by Zachary Strain.

The Eningeering Sciences building’s air conditioning system is old and outdated, and is no longer sufficient for the number of people in the building. Elsewhere in the building, electrical fans are sometimes used to cool computer servers. This past summer, smoke from the air conditioning system caused a building evacuation.

4. As well as feeling cooler, the Engineering Education and Research Center will look cooler. Like Silicon Valley cool.

Rendering courtesy of  the Cockrell School of Engineering.

5. Really tall people won't have to worry about hitting their heads on ceiling pipes.

Photo of pipes in a stairwell in the Engineering Sciences Building by Zachary Strain

6. Students will learn engineering by doing engineering, which will lead to everyone smiling.

Rendering courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering.

Engineering Dean Greg Fenves said the way engineering is taught has changed. Students now learn engineering hands-on. “[Our old buildings] were designed to teach students sitting in chairs that are bolted to the floor with a professor at the blackboard at the front,” Fenves said.

7. There will be space for entrepreneurship, and engineers will dress considerably better than students ever have before. Seriously — no one will wear sweatpants.

Rendering courtesy of  the Cockrell School of Engineering.

The centerpiece of the building will be the National Instruments Student Project Center, 23,000 square feet dedicated to student projects.

8. More space will mean more students who will speak to each other instead of Siri.

Rendering courtesy of the Cockrell School of Engineering.

When the new building is constructed, the Cockrell School of Engineering wants to add 1,000 students to the program — almost a 20 percent increase.

9. The Daily Texan has a in-depth story in Monday's edition, which tells you why the current Engineering Sciences Building is really, really bad, and why the future Engineering Education and Research Center is really, really awesome.

follow us on Twitter (@thedailytexan) for updates

Chairman Wm. Eugene “Gene” Powell (left) and Regent Robert L. Stillwell (right) hear various proposals, including one for the new engineering building, during a UT system board meeting in January. The board approved the potential use of tuition revenue bonds.

Photo Credit: Pearce Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

The UT System Board of Regents approved a proposal that would demolish the Engineering-Science Building and replace it with a new building called the Engineering Education and Research Center at its meeting Wednesday.

The proposal will now go to the Texas Legislature for tuition revenue bond funding. President William Powers Jr. said the University plans to build the new Engineering Education and Research Center regardless of the funding decision, but if the Texas Legislature approves the bond, UT will be able to build the center sooner.

“This is the highest priority project on our campus right now and one of our most important and most successful colleges,” Powers said at the meeting Wednesday. “The [Cockrell School of Engineering] brings in $160 million a year in external research funding. ... It teaches 5,600 undergraduates and 2,200 graduate students. It has 278 tenured and tenure-track faculty, so it’s a very large and very important part of our campus.”

This building is part of a 10-year project to modernize UT’s engineering facilities. The University built the Biomedical Engineering Building in 2008 for the new department, but pre-existing engineering programs have not received new buildings, Powers said. 

“In terms of the main campus and teaching our students and doing research, the last engineering building was the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Building in 1986 — that’s 26 years,” Powers said.

The new engineering building will total 430,000 square feet and will take the place of the Engineering-Science Building in the engineering area.

“We are replacing an existing building and removing 240,000 square feet of space,” Powers said. “It is virtually not quite unusable, but obsolete, and in great need of either repair, but in this case replacement. It would add 193,000 square feet.” 

The project is intended to improve the resources, technology and research available to engineering students. 

“It is a combination of a student-oriented project learning center … and flexible interdisciplinary modular research space,” Powers said. “It reflects not just the need for updated and higher-tech classrooms, but really a new way of teaching students, much more project-oriented, much more team-oriented.”

The projected total cost of the project is $310 million, and Powers requested a $95 million tuition revenue bond authorization, or TRB. According to UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a tuition revenue bond finances construction through the selling of a bond. She said if the bond is approved, it would be issued to UT, but the state would pay the full amount. 

Powers said if the bond is not approved, the project would still be financed through alternative sources.

“This project is going forward when we get the fundraising done even if the Legislature says we’re not going to have any TRBs,” Powers said. 

This project meets the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s standards for space need, building cost and building efficiency and will lower the amount of deferred maintenance. The project was previously unsuccessfully proposed to the Legislature in May 2012.

Engineering students said they look forward to the renovation and expansion of their program’s facilities, particularly because of the age of current engineering buildings. 

“They definitely look outdated in comparison to all of the newer buildings,” mechanical engineering sophomore Chris Krieps said. “They don’t have the same openness. It feels really cramped and stuffy when you’re inside of them versus the new liberal arts buildings which are really open and breathe nicely versus being in the mechanical engineering building.”

New and updated resources are also a promising aspect of this project.

“Some of the new technology that’s come out since [the buildings] were created could help us out,” electrical engineering sophomore Eric Van Dyk said. “If we could get new facilities, it could help us with research; some of the materials we use are kind of old, and some of the stuff that we could have could be so much better.”

Printed on Thursday, January 24, 2013 as: UT System approves plan for Cockrell replacement 

After the Cockrell School of Engineering got a $10 million donation for its new Engineering Education and Research Center, Gregory Fenves, dean of the Cockrell School, said the new facilities will make the University an even more competitive recruiting force for engineering students.

National Instruments CEO and president James Truchard made the $10 million personal donation because he said the University was lacking a central location where engineering students can innovate and collaborate. The Engineering Education and Research Center is scheduled to open in 2017 and will replace the Engineering-Science Building (ENS). Truchard’s donation will help fund the National Instruments Student Project Center, which will allow engineering students of all disciplines to take part in more hands-on projects during the course of their college careers.

According to the EERC website, the center is a $310 million project, with the majority of funding coming from the UT System Board of Regents, the University itself and the state of Texas. The Cockrell School has been making efforts to raise the remaining funds through private donations by individuals and corporations.

Truchard is an alumnus of the University, holding a doctorate in electrical engineering as well as a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in physics, according to his biography.

Fenves said donations result in naming opportunities for sections of the building proportional to the amount and importance of the donation.

“Naming opportunities for the building range all the way from an office to the entire building,” Fenves said. “This is a recognition of the gift, so there’s no direct relationship in how we use the space or what kind of equipment we use, although we do use a lot of National Instruments equipment because it’s good equipment.”

The naming of building sectors is an important opportunity for companies hoping to recruit UT engineering students upon graduation, Fenves said.

“Our engineering graduates are in very high demand,” Fenves said. “One of the reasons companies are interested in the EERC is name recognition. Students are going to go through the building and see the name of the company, so when it comes time to apply for jobs and begin the hiring process, many companies feel that name recognition will help in their recruiting process.”

Julia Betts, corporate communications and investor relations manager for National Instruments, said the company brings a positive presence to the university level, providing excellent facilities and equipment for students to practice with in their chosen fields.

“Having strong facilities for student experiences in engineering and science are a factor in attracting students to Austin which benefits the local community and National Instruments,” Betts said. “National Instruments presence on campuses is always helpful in demonstrating the impact and value of our technologies to students.”

Garrett Galow, electrical engineering senior and vice president of internal affairs for the Student Engineering Council, said National Instruments already holds a large presence as an employment opportunity for UT graduates. He said he was not surprised by the generosity of Truchard’s gift to the engineering school due to his giving nature.

“I worked for National Instruments doing internships and somewhat met Dr. Truchard before,” Galow said. “He’s a really kind man and he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a CEO at all. He’s very generous and this definitely seems like something he would do. I think it’s a great thing.”

Printed on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013 as: Engineering center helped by donation from CEO