New Engineering Structure at Colorado State University Complements Learning Required of Contemporary Engineers

High-bay labs. A design studio based on a facility that sent a spacecraft to explore the solar system. A reduced emphasis on classrooms. An increased emphasis on integrated teaching labs.

Colorado State University’s newly remodeled Engineering Building is high, wide and deep to accommodate the new directions that engineering knowledge is taking every day.

Johannes Gessler, professor of civil engineering, associate dean for undergraduate studies and a long-time member of the design committee that took down the old and put up the new, said it takes a special building to keep up with curricular changes imposed by new needs.

However, Gessler said, the new structure, never out of service in teaching engineers during the course of construction, at one time was open across several wings and bays. His favorite image is that of construction crews knocking down the old walls that separated the engineering disciplines.

Now, with renovation nearly complete, many of those huge open spaces still exist. Labs stretch three stories high, a window looks upon an opposite wall 100 feet or more away, giant pipes and painted conduits carry the building’s infrastructure and the old courtyards have been enclosed to widen out available space.

"The design has a lot to do with creating spaces so that students can see into those spaces," Gessler said. "Now, a freshman doesn’t have to wait three years to see behind that closed door of an advanced lab.

"It is that wide-open space, where everybody sees everything, that is important."

Openness works in several ways. Freshmen, plowing through a rote first year that teaches math, physics and chemistry, the underpinnings of their field, find themselves doing only a limited amout of engineering. Seeing how much fun it is to test a vessel in a wind tunnel or to build a better SAE formula sports car shows them what’s ahead.

Then, said Gessler, there’s horizontal and vertical integration. There was a time, he said, when engineering disciplines were housed in separate wings of buildings. The idea now, he said, is "logical adjacency"-horizontal integration.

In practical terms, "a good example is robotics," Gessler said. "It’s at the interface of electrical and computer engineering and of mechanical engineering. So we put the robotics lab near the mechanical and control areas, just as we put the fluids and thermal sciences lab near mechanical and civil engineering. It’s a shared facility."

Vertical integration mixes freshmen and sophomores with upperclass students. Certainly a spark to motivate beginners, it has a more practical value when practiced with horizontal integration. Such integration puts engineers from all fields in touch with what others are doing. Given the complexity of, say, mechanical engineering, no one can master even that field, but a mechanical engineer can learn the needs, general theories and skills of electrical engineers. It means better engineers, better communications and better product.

High bays, shared labs, integrated education-all serve to address the needs in today’s engineering education, Gessler said.

"Our students are more visual than in the past, and learning in a lab is more effective. They’re also more diverse, and integrated learning better meets their individual needs.

"Students think they need to see in order to learn, and from the philosophy of learning that’s correct," Gessler said. "The only surprise is how long it took the teaching establishment to learn that and to design a building that facilitates this need."