Expanding engineering: $30 million Engineering Center approved by State of Michigan

By Annie Stodola

The Oakland University School of Engineering and Computer Science was recently allotted $30 million from the State of Michigan to go toward the construction of a new Engineering Center on campus.

After submitting a proposal for the 127,000 square foot building to the state legislature, the funding was approved as part of the Michigan fiscal year 2010-11 capital outlay budget bill in December.

“We created a proposal to say what this center would do for the School of Engineering and Computer Science and how it would contribute to the economic development in Oakland County and Macomb County, as well as the state of Michigan,” Louay Chamra, dean of the SECS, said.

Although the funding from the state government has been approved, Chamra said there are still steps that need to be taken, including designing the building over the next seven to eight months and getting approval from the OU Board of Trustees. According to Chamra, the building will cost about $75.5 million, meaning that the school must develop a plan to raise the final $45.5 million.

“If the Board of Trustees approves our plan and everything goes smoothly, we anticipate that construction will start by next fall,” Chamra said. “But there are many tasks before that.”

While the building is still only in the planning stages, both Chamra and interim associate dean of  SECS and associate professor Lorenzo Smith hope to see the building develop as a center for student engagement with the department and its faculty.

“I see the building as a place to increase faculty and student interaction,” Chamra said. “I want to create more areas for student and faculty to interact. The whole building will be student friendly.”

As an additional way to make the building an asset for students, Chamra has suggested a learning center to serve as a hub for engineering student resources.

“I’d like to establish an engineering student learning center,” Chamra said. “It would be a place where we can provide student services — advising, tutoring, internship opportunities, career placement after they graduate.”

Smith emphasized that the center will not only benefit current students, but hopefully draw potential students in.

“We want the new building to be a venue at which prospective students can clearly see the exciting activities taking place,” Smith said. “To this end, the new building is expected to feature work spaces which are visible through large glass windows as they walk the hallways.”

Chamra is enthusiastic about the development of integrated design labs in the building as well, where students can work in multidisciplinary teams of students from several types of engineering majors and backgrounds.

“At OU, we pride ourselves on putting students early in their career in multidisciplinary teams,” Chamra said. “We try to put them in teams to simulate the workforce.”

The new building is expected to make use of environmentally-friendly energy, including the use of solar panels to provide some electricity for the building. The department is also hoping to offer “green space” on the roof, where there will be both a flower garden and areas for students and faculty alike to relax.

While both Chamra and Smith agree that the students in the SECS are already performing at a high level, they also agree that this center will offer even more opportunities for a higher quality education.

“The OU students in SECS already compete very well among their counterparts worldwide,” Smith said. “In addition to their academic skills, they are known for their hard work, creativity, confidence and ability to roll up their sleeves and dive into the problem. The new building will only add to their foundation from which they build their competitive edge.”

Rob Petrach, president of the OU Society of Engineers, said that as an engineering student, he also expects that the new center will offer improved opportunities for students.

“I think that the new engineering center will provide grounds for research and technological advances,” Petrach said. “Because of this, it should give students more outlets to further their engineering education and improve the quality that the existing engineering program can provide.”

He also thinks the new center may draw in new and talented professors.

“With new professors should come a larger spectrum of courses and areas of advanced research, which will have a very positive effect on OU engineering and computer science students,” Petrach said.

In addition to increasing the overall quality of education that engineering students receive, the department expects the building to be an integral part of developing the local economy.

“The building is extremely important in terms of providing a highly visible focal point of our contribution to the economic development of the region,” Chamra said. “I really believe engineering is coming back to this country. Much of it was outsourced but it’s coming back because we provide an excellent quality of engineering and an excellent quality of product if it’s made in the area or even in this country.”

Although Chamra said that the automotive industry in the area is still a crucial part of the regional economy and is an industry that the engineering department partners with at times, it is important to broaden the spectrum of the industries in the economy.

“This building is at the center of this economic renaissance in terms of this region,” Chamra said. “During this great recession, we have to develop other industry in the region. It’s essential to grow this area and work with local industry.”