New ECE Building Uses Space as Educational Component


High-tech thinking is ingrained in every inch of the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, but it’s the cavernous spaces that catch the untrained eye.

And those, as it turns out, are a part of the plan, too.

Electrical and Computer Engineering Building

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

ECE leaders hope the massive lobby area and wide hallways, the wide-open and window-laden study and lecture rooms, and the ample laboratory space will foster comfortable conversations that will lead to innovation and academic success.

Just as well-thought-out as the almost futuristic climate control system, which eventually will include a research-ready solar power system and produce a net-zero energy footprint, the 230,000-square-foot building’s ample spaces are designed to play heavily in the undergraduate learning experience.

“On the very first day of full operation (Aug. 25), students could be found congregating, mingling and conversing in almost every available space,” said Philip Krein, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “The wide hallways allow students to move around, hang out before and after class, and begin to treat the building as the home it is intended to be.”

Changing classes also will become a breeze through the building’s “movement design,” meant to convey as many as 2,500 people in and out of the building in just 10 minutes.

Scott Carney, an ECE professor, said the building debuted at an opportune time for his ECE 445 class, which has seen a spike in enrollment in the past three years.

“It’s hard to imagine how we could have accommodated this year’s class in our lab space,” he said.

He said the new Srivastava Senior Design Lab, which has an attached meeting room and overflow space, will allow the department to keep up with student demand.

“Now we just need the great ideas of our students to fill that space with ambitious projects,” he said.

Carney said the main lecture hall, just off the lobby and separated by massive wood dividers, is like an outdoor amphitheater.

“It’s going to be a real treat to host the spring 2015 edition of Saturday Engineering for Everyone in there,” he said. “Department colloquia also will be significantly improved experiences.”

“In general there is simply more space,” said ECE professor Jonathan J. Makela, “and the new spaces are designed to allow students to comfortably interact with each other. It will be great to be able to talk with my students in the great atrium and large hallways before and after classes, without feeling rushed or cramped.”

Krein said maybe the best example of the vision for the new $95 million building, under construction for nearly three years, is the open projects laboratory suite. Students will develop the lab’s policies and manage it, with their imaginations set free to create almost limitless options through individual and team-led projects that can run for long intervals.

The equipment in the 20 instructional labs is unparalleled, he said, and will give students opportunities to work with lasers, semiconductor materials, antennas, space-based sensors, electricity grids, nanofabrication, optics, and robotics.

“Even the larger classrooms are designed with the feel of personal interaction and individual attention,” Krein said.

Each classroom has high-definition video presentation equipment – but many also have old-fashioned wall-length blackboards, something that most professors agreed was a necessity, even in the high-tech age.

There are almost 70 plasma screens around the building for directions, announcements and class schedules, and a café will open soon so students can pick up a snack. The lobby has tables where students can work, with meeting rooms nearby.

There are some odds and ends to be completed before the building is finished, though the teaching spaces are online and operational. An outside vendor is completing bid specifications of the rooftop solar array and the accompanying array that will sit atop the parking garage of Beckman Institute.

The solar panels are being funded in part by the U of I Student Sustainability Committee and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Fifty percent of the building, located at 306 N. Wright St., Urbana, was funded by the state of Illinois, with donations and corporate support covering the remaining half. The building has 15 donor-sponsored spaces, including those by Texas Instruments and the Caterpillar Foundation.

A building dedication ceremony is set for 1 p.m. Oct. 10. An open house, hosted by the ECE Illinois Alumni Board, is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 25.