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Transform our buildings, revolutionize our curriculum

By Assistant Professor Jeremy Guest

Our educational mission in CEE is to produce engineers of the highest caliber, with rigorous core knowledge and problem-solving skills, who understand complex engineering and societal systems and their interactions, and appreciate their role in creating and protecting quality of life through sustainable economic development and environmental protection. To meet the evolving needs of society, we are continually seeking to improve and adapt our students’ educational experience, working with alumni and global engineering leaders to help identify priorities as we modernize our curricula.

Assistant Professor Jeremy Guest, left, works with then-CEE student Amanda Lardizabal (MS 16, PhD 17)
Assistant Professor Jeremy Guest, left, works with then-CEE student Amanda Lardizabal (MS 16, PhD 17)

One constant in our pursuits is our uncompromising focus on fundamental principles and technical excellence; graduates from CEE at Illinois will continue to uphold the highest standards for which our alumni are well known. As we modernize our curricula to meet the evolving needs of the industry and society, we are building on this strong foundation to enhance students’ educational experiences to prepare them to be leaders in their future careers. To this end, the department has embarked on a multi-year initiative to modernize the educational experience of our students. At the core of the philosophy is the increased emphasis on critical thinking and the ability to work effectively both individually and in teams, helping prepare students to tackle the increasingly complex challenges facing engineers and society in the 21st century – challenges that are poorly defined, open-ended and require diverse teams for the development of innovative solutions.

Across all years, both undergraduate and graduate, we have developed new courses, enhanced existing ones, and created more opportunities for hands-on experiences to address these emerging needs. Notable updates include increased use of project-based learning, the integration of modern computational tools into engineering design and decision-making, increased emphasis on communication, and more accessible laboratory experiences through the research experience for undergraduates (REU) program. As we continue to advance these initiatives to train the next generation of CEE leaders, it is now time for our buildings’ infrastructure to match our aspirations for our students’ educational experience.

Phase II of the CEE Modernization Plan represents a tremendous leap forward in the educational capabilities of CEE at Illinois. In addition to dramatically increasing the use and functionality of the Hydrosystems building, the renovation will include three key features that will serve as the foundation for the continued advancement of our curricula: technology-enhanced classrooms, teaching laboratories and collaboration spaces.

Technology-enhanced classrooms for increased engagement.

Re-envisioning the classroom experience requires infrastructure that leverages modern technology to support student engagement, discussion and the use of advanced computational tools during class sessions. The modernized Hydrosystems building will include two technology enhanced classrooms which will provide a collaborative learning environment that can be adapted to a given class’ needs. Key features of the rooms are the ability to have students sit and work in teams of 4-6, with each team having its own monitor to facilitate discussion and interactive problem-solving. Teams can use computational tools, including state-of-the-art disciplinary software, to tackle design challenges and then report out to the rest of the class, projecting from their own tables, to facilitate discussion and practice their ability to concisely communicate complex concepts. Through the incorporation of computational tools into the classroom, students can more rapidly transition through the learning curve, developing an understanding of fundamental principles, applying those principles to analyze a system, and then synthesizing that knowledge to create new designs.

Teaching laboratories for hands-on experiences.

It is well-established that hands-on experiences increase conceptual understanding and knowledge retention while simultaneously increasing student engagement and training them in the core activities on which our profession is built. With the support of alumni, the REU program has been tremendously successful, enabling more than 100 students within the past three years to have hands-on experiences as they work directly with faculty and graduate students on cutting-edge research. The expanded facilities offered by Phase II of the CEE Modernization Plan will increase the accessibility of laboratory experiences by building new teaching laboratories to provide designated space for experiential learning. Among the new laboratories will be the Vernon L. Snoeyink Water Chemistry Laboratory, the E.W. and J.L. Merritt Structural Design Laboratory and a Geotechnical Engineering Laboratory, and – we hope – more such spaces, depending on the success of fundraising efforts currently underway. These new spaces will act as catalysts for learning, providing more hands-on activities with samples and instrumentation to ground the fundamental principles taught in class to real-world applications. The laboratory spaces will be dynamic, with flexible floor plans to enable our program to continue to evolve over the coming decades.

Collaboration spaces to enhance interaction.

As we endeavor to train the next generation of leaders, we regularly reflect on feedback we have received from our alumni about factors that have had the most positive impact on their professional trajectories. A common theme among these responses is the importance of being able to work as part of a team, to navigate interpersonal dynamics while tackling larger, more complex projects than they could possibly do on their own. This observation is aligned with expectations from ABET (the accrediting board for engineering degrees) and the National Academy of Engineering that we train our students to be able to work in teams to address the increasingly complex challenges facing society. Building off the success of the M.T. Geoffrey Yeh Student Center, completed in 2011, which included designated spaces for students to work and interact, facilitating interactions among students and between students and faculty is central to Phase II of the CEE Modernization Plan. Specifically, collaborative spaces – areas for 2-5 people to congregate around a small table or workspace – have been integrated throughout the building and represent the majority of the footprint of the new signature bridge between Newmark and Hydrosystems labs. These spaces will not only provide CEE students with workspace for their class assignments and team projects, but will also increase impromptu interactions among students and faculty to further enrich the CEE community.

Maintaining our legacy of excellence and leadership.

As we continue to build our legacy of excellence in CEE, we will continue to aspire to provide transformative learning experiences for our students. Phase II of the CEE Modernization Plan represents a giant leap in our infrastructure to help achieve those aspirations.

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