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Grainger Foundation Commitment Funding Undergraduate Innovation

By Gabriela Betancourt

The silence and relative calm of Engineering Mall were broken by the sounds of marching band music and palpable excitement during the early afternoon on September 17th as students and faculty awaited the “special announcement” that the College of Engineering had stated would be shared with the public that day. The crowd applauded and cheered when it was announced that the Grainger Foundation had recently agreed to fund a $22 million commitment to the College of Engineering.

This is the second of two commitments recently awarded to the College of Engineering from the Grainger Foundation. The focus of the most recent commitment is to improve the educational and career services available on campus for undergraduates, as well as create a “makerspace” that will facilitate students’ development of product design and interdisciplinary skills.

“There are several different components regarding how we are going to use the funds,” says College of Engineering Dean, Ian Robertson. “One area that we’re really happy the Grainger Foundation liked was the Undergraduate Learning Center.” The ULC was in its final year of being funded by a previous commitment, so it would have likely been downsized in the coming years. “They liked that the center has had a very positive effect on the undergraduate students,” says Robertson. “Part of the gift will be used to provide an endowment for that service.” This endowment will allow the College of Engineering to continue providing services many undergraduates find beneficial and to expand and improve upon them.

Among the proposed improvements to the undergraduate services is the development of online courses that would allow students to strengthen the foundational math and science skills they learned in high school, helping them succeed in college level courses. Perhaps the most noticeable change, however, will be the multiple renovations to several buildings around the engineering campus. “You’ve probably already noticed the changes in Engineering Hall,” says Robertson. The intention of the space recently completed in Engineering Hall was to create somewhere where students could meet and discuss group projects.

In addition to some of the renovations to classrooms already underway in Engineering Hall, most of the Engineering Academic Services will be moved to a single building, 1410, and Wendt Commons will be completely redesigned in order to make it a more conducive learning environment. The second and third floors of Wendt Commons will be completely reimagined, with the construction of large capacity classrooms that will accommodate the increasing undergraduate population as well as a “makerspace” entirely dedicated to allowing undergraduates to tinker and experiment with the latest design, visualization, and fabrication technologies.

One of the two main goals of the new “makerspace” is to expose students to technologies that will help them in their studies and careers. The second goal is to provide students with the skills needed to work effectively with engineers from other disciplines and develop the ability to create innovative designs that can be used for competitions or entrepreneurial ventures. In a field that is constantly becoming more interdisciplinary, global, and competitive, these skills are critical for students in order to remain competitive in the current job market and to continue developing new ideas and technologies that will shape industries in the future.

“What they [companies] really like is that we can teach you problem solving skills, that we can teach you how to take a really complicated problem, dismantle it into components, solve each component, and then put it all back together,” says Robertson. “They’re coming not just because they want you to be an engineer, they’re coming because they like the rest of the skill sets you have.”

Undergraduates in the College of Engineering can already notice the impact that the Grainger Foundation has had on the college through numerous gifts and commitments made in the past. This latest round of improvements is on schedule to be completed within the next several years, allowing current undergraduates to benefit from the Grainger Foundation’s commitment before graduation. “The Grainger Foundation, David Grainger, has been very kind to the College; the impact they’ve had and their willingness to help us do these things is tremendous,” says Robertson. “It’s a moment when engineering is doing incredibly well and the job market is very good. It’s a very exciting time to be here and to be an engineer.”

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