Breaking News

College of Engineering beginning to see payoff on investments into people, facilities | National News

The empty lot that became a big hole in the ground on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus is beginning to transform again.

As steel beams begin to stretch skyward, outlining what will become Kiewit Hall, a $115 million facility funded through private donations, UNL’s College of Engineering is working to transform alongside it.

University of Nebraska College of Engineering Dean Lance Pérez talks about changes in the engineering program at Othmer Hall on Thursday.

“We’re going to transform the student experience,” Lance Pérez, the college dean, told the NU Board of Regents on Thursday during a campus tour.

Regents also toured and spoke throughout the day with personnel at the UNL College of Education and Human Sciences, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts and the College of Law.

Many of the presentations allowed regents to see the results of the board’s investments made in faculty, facilities and new programs over the last few years.

In addition to building a new facility — Kiewit Corp. in Omaha made the lead gift of $25 million — the College of Engineering is also expanding its faculty and financial support for students.

Forty new engineering faculty have been hired over the last three years, Pérez said, with many moving into the 87,000 square feet of newly renovated space known as the Engineering Research Center.

Many of those individuals come to UNL with National Science Foundation career awards, or an equivalent award, which brings research funding along with it, and the chance for undergraduate and graduate students to get valuable hands-on experience.

UNL is also undertaking a professional development program aimed at shifting its engineering curriculum toward more active and collaborative learning, the dean said.

The interactions that kind of learning will foster, between instructors and students and between students and students, and instructors and instructors across disciplines, may lead to new academic programs.

Every first-year student entering the college this fall will enroll in the Complete Engineer program, which teaches non-technical skills such as communication, leadership, teamwork, professional ethics, and civic and social responsibility alongside the engineering education.

Those competencies will be included on the students’ transcripts when they graduate, Pérez said.

UNL is also partnering with Kiewit Corp. and the Peter Kiewit Foundation to support students in ways Pérez said is making a College of Engineering education more accessible for Nebraska students.

A second cohort of 10 Kiewit Scholars, whose cost of education is paid for by executives at Kiewit Corp., will enter UNL in the fall. The first cohort of 10 students has earned an average 3.8 GPA and had opportunities to visit projects across the country and meet business leaders.

Starting this fall, the Peter Kiewit Foundation Scholars will pay the cost of education — including tuition, room and board and books — for 40 students.

The $5 million annual program, which is focused on Nebraska students, as well as those with demonstrated need, received hundreds of applications, Pérez said.

“We’re really doing everything we can to make sure that every Nebraskan has an opportunity to study engineering and preserve that access to students across the state,” he told regents.

Pérez said the massive investments from the state, university and private sector are beginning to show results.

After peaking at 3,117 students in the 2017-18 school year — roughly corresponding to record enrollment across the NU system — the College of Engineering experienced three consecutive years of enrollment losses.

Enrollment jumped to 3,023 students last fall, however, and the number of students who have been accepted is also on the rise.

A total of 435 students have placed enrollment deposits for the fall 2022 semester, Pérez said — a nearly 22% increase over the number of enrollment deposits last year at this time.

“If that comes to fruition,” Pérez said, referring to students who have been admitted and paid a deposit showing up for fall classes, “we’ll really start to see the growth we’re talking about.”

This year’s enrollment deposits are 9% higher than the 398 students who had been admitted to the College of Engineering at this point in 2019 before the pandemic, when enrollments plummeted across the country.

Pérez credited the leadership of NU President Ted Carter, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and the state in pushing to keep the university open last year, when many institutions remained closed because of COVID-19.

“We were aggressive in understanding the value of in-person education, while also learning lessons of remote learning and access, so we are entering this fall poised in a position of strength compared to many other institutions,” he said.

Pérez said as the College of Engineering watches Kiewit Hall continue to take shape, it will also keep close tabs on how students it educates and trains take shape as well.

“I feel confident every one of those students will get an offer from a Nebraska company,” he said. “Whether or not they take it, that’s their decision, of course, but there is plenty of opportunity in the state right now across engineering, computing and construction.”

NU economy, 2.12

A file photo from Feb. 12 shows work on Kiewit Hall, an extension of the College of Engineering complex at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

During Thursday’s tour, Green pointed out to regents a space across Vine Street to the south of Kiewit Hall where he envisions a future School of Computing building.

UNL proposed the creation of a School of Computing that operates under the College of Engineering in February 2020; the Board of Regents approved the idea in August 2021.

The proposed $80 million facility, which will be a part of a future fundraising effort launched by the University of Nebraska Foundation, will be home to future degree programs in data science, artificial intelligence and other high-tech fields.

“We don’t do vocational training — we educate students for the future because they are going to be doing jobs we haven’t thought of yet,” Pérez said.