Wyoming hopes to overhaul UW’s outdated College of Engineering facilities

May 11, 2012

Earlier this year the Wyoming legislature set aside some 30 million dollars in matching money to help pay for a major upgrade in U-W’s College of Engineering.  With an anticipated cost of nearly 100 million dollars, it would be U-W’s most expensive building project.  The last major addition to the College occurred in 1980.  Right now labs are too small, classrooms are crowded and the front portion of the building has a distinct 1920’s flavor.  As Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports…at a time when other building projects were occurring on campus…the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said skipping the College of Engineering would have been a crime….

BOB BECK:      Senator Phil Nicholas has been a member of the Appropriations Committee during most of Wyoming’s boom years.  During that time he saw support for a number of building projects.  This year he oversaw planning for future budget cuts.  But before those occur Nicholas wanted one last shot at getting what could be the last round of funding for a project he felt had been overlooked…the College of Engineering…

NICHOLAS :  My conclusion was that it would be a sad thing for the state of Wyoming to go through this second boom…the first boom being the 80’s…and not come out with an extraordinarily strong, robust, College of Engineering. 

BECK: Nicholas says a number of Wyoming economic development efforts have depended on the college in the past and he believes that an enhanced college would do even more.

NICHOLAS:  And when I pitched that to my colleagues’ I realized there was great support. 

BECK:  Nicholas says Wyoming has spent a lot of money to recruit firms to come to the state.  He believes that this project will lead to U-W graduates creating a number of high tech jobs.  Nicholas says the College of Engineering already has a track record.

NICHOLAS:  It’s pretty remarkable. You look at Tri-Hydro here, you look at a variety of engineering firms that are just straight engineering, a lot of innovation, a lot of information technology jobs, and those are where we are seeing most of our growth.  And frankly most of it is coming out of our college of engineering.

BECK:   U-W Provost Myron Allen is excited about the possibilities.

MYRON ALLEN:   It’s already a fine college of engineering and it’s responsible for the majority of the spinoffs and startup companies in southeast Wyoming.  But having a stronger college of engineering and applied science would really help us to attract even more high tech firms and other types of industries to the area.

BECK:  Allen says enhancing the college has been needed for awhile and it will have an impact…

ALLEN:  We’ve actually been able to attract some really good faculty members, but we’ve had to focus more recently on faculty members in areas that don’t require large laboratories because we simply don’t have the laboratory space.  

BECK:  Allen says that has hindered what research could be done and he says that enhancing the labs will certainly help students be better prepared.

But few are more excited about the prospects that College of Engineering Dean Rob Ettema.  He says he came to Wyoming because of the reputation of the College, but he says they have some key needs…

ROB ETTEMA:  We have foreseeable growth in enrollment so we need to increase the capacity for more students.  We lack capacity for research labs and space, space for graduate students and so on.  And thirdly just the sense of the professional ambience of the college is a bit dated.

BECK:  Dated might be an understatement.  The college was constructed in the 1920’s…a west wing was added in 1960 and the modern part of the facility was built over 30 years ago. 

Despite all of this, Forbes magazine listed the College as one of the nation’s best buys and the Atmospheric Science program has long been recognized as one of the top programs in the country.  But if they can build better research facilities….Ettema says there is even more they can do…

ETTEMA:  We’ll be able to do more innovative research in engineering and computer science and atmospheric science and you know most of this country’s technology and innovation occurs at a University.  Wyoming shouldn’t be second to anybody in that regard, I think. 

BECK:  Ettema says the goal is to grow in rankings and stature.  So as they are busy discussing what they building will look like he stresses that all the department heads are looking at developing the best program they can.

ETTEMA:  Looking where we have strategic advantages that we can build and make more of.  How we can strengthen the faculty and staff numbers and talent here.  So, what we are underway with is not just a building program, but I characterize it as a program building program. 

BECK:   Ettema says they are also looking at how these programs and their graduates can advance Wyoming’s economic growth.  This plan will be presented to the legislature and a timeline will be agreed on.  But there is one more thing they have to do and that’s to find donors.  While the legislature provided planning money and has set aside 30 million dollars this is expected to be a 100 million dollar effort.  So U-W has a lot of money to raise.  But Senator Nicholas says if they can make the case that Wyoming students will be trained to work in the state and that economic development can be enhanced, he believes that will be a strong selling point.  And he hints that there could be some additional legislative dollars available as well.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.