Students find lots to like in new ECE building

Students find lots to like in new ECE building

The "Daily Byte" cafe isn't open yet. There are still a few holes instead of trees outside. Equipment is piled up in some rooms, and one entrance reads "Keep Out."

None of that seemed to matter Monday to University of Illinois students enjoying their first day of classes in the $95 million Electrical and Computer Engineering building, decades in the making and just about complete.

The consensus view: a huge, high-tech improvement over the department's home for more than half a century, Everitt Lab at Green and Wright streets.

Everitt wasn't designed for "the department of today. What is the electrical and computer engineering department of the future going to look like? This is a great embodiment of that vision," said Bodecker DellaMaria, a senior in computer engineering.

While freshmen hurried to find their first class, upperclassmen contrasted the bright, inviting space to their former digs.

They like the openness and natural light, especially in the soaring atrium. The latest technology in the nearly 20 labs for students. The wood-paneled auditorium, which seats 400 and is the largest lecture hall on north campus.

"In the old building I felt like I was in the '70s, just because of how old-school it really was," said Ankit Jain, graduate student in electrical engineering. "This is much more attractive and appealing. ... You want to be here."

Recent graduate Tej Chajed, who is headed to MIT for graduate school, stepped into the building for the first time Monday and confessed some regrets about leaving.

"It's awesome," he said. "Having a new building helps us feel like a top school."

Their hands-down favorite space? The Open Projects Lab upstairs, which isn't even finished yet. Run by a student committee, it will allow students to work on projects of their own, for engineering competitions or just to "make their dreams happen," Chajed said.

"We've never had that before," DellaMaria said. "Companies who are looking to recruit from here are asking, 'What hands-on experience do you have? What projects have you worked on?' Having an opportunity for hands-on experience and freedom to work on what they want to work on is really, really important."

"And it's really good to be able to show students that we are all about innovation, not just as a department but as a college," he added. "I think it's really important to have spaces like this where students can really live and breathe what they're learning in the classroom. Because in the industry that we're in, you have to be immersed in what you're learning. You have to really be surrounded by the technology that you're helping create."

The state-of-the-art building will enhance teaching and research, said Professor Bill Sanders, head of the department, which has 2,000 undergraduates, 500 graduate students and more than 100 faculty.

A second-floor nanofabrication lab — with yellow-orange windows to filter out ultraviolet light — is visible from the lobby. A teaching lab for students, it's the only one of its kind in an ECE department, where undergraduates will be able to manufacture tiny parts that can be used in various applications.

Likewise, the Texas Instruments Electronics Design Laboratory visible on the first floor introduces freshmen to the basics of electrical and computer engineering, from hardware to control systems, in a hands-on way: by building a robotic vehicle. Texas Instruments donated $3.2 million to fund that space and a new student center. The lab is triple the size of the old one at Everitt, Jain said.

For the first time in recent memory, all of the department's classes will be taught in one building, Sanders said.

And by moving to the north quad, alongside the Coordinated Science Lab, Beckman and the Nanotechnology Lab, all faculty in the department will be in the same area of campus, he said. The "community space" in the new building will enhance collaboration among professors and between faculty and students, he said.

Landscaping crews were still planting trees and finishing walkways Monday, while workmen inside checked doors and mechanical equipment and put the finishing touches on the "donor wall," shaped like an integrated circuit. All the classroom spaces were ready on Monday, though some electrical work and smaller items remain to be completed over the next couple of weeks.

"We are substantially finished," Sanders said.

Bids are in for the rooftop solar panels, which will help the building achieve its goal of "net zero" energy use. They should be installed in the next few months, he said. The department received grants for the panels from the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity ($250,000) and the UI's Student Sustainability Committee ($225,000).

"This will really enable us to illustrate the innovations that the department has made," Sanders said, noting faculty research in solar panels and the LED lighting invented by emeritus Professor Nick Holonyak.

"It's really a one-of-a-kind building," Sanders said.

One old-school touch: many of the classrooms still have chalkboards, at the request of faculty.

And doctoral student Srikanthan Sridharan was most thrilled — actually "in love with" — his office view. He cheerfully invoked "The DaVinci Code" to describe his "Rose Line" view of the Altgeld Hall bell tower. At Everitt, "I was in the basement, so it was much more dingy," he said. "It's brilliant."

The scoop on the ECE building

— Cost $95 million: half from state, half from donations.

— Replaces 1940s-era Everitt Laboratory, which will be renovated for Department of Bioengineering.

— 230,000 square feet, almost double the size of Everitt.

— Designed to be net-zero energy user, with solar panels, low-energy lighting, efficient heating and cooling systems; soaring atrium designed as a community space for students and faculty; state-of-the-art design labs open to undergraduates; and 400-seat auditorium that is largest on north campus.

— Used by 3,100 different students Monday.

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