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UAA School of Engineering building new lab to help meet growing statewide need

Jerzy Shedlock
On Friday, UAA will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a new, $78.3-million engineering building. The push for expansion began years ago -- and enrollment in the School of Engineering has more than quadrupled since 2000. Jerzy Shedlock photo

The University of Alaska Anchorage is set to break ground on another new facility at its Anchorage campus on Friday. The four-story engineering building will cost $78.3 million and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015. The push for expansion began years ago -- enrollment in the School of Engineering’s 17 degree and certificate programs has more than quadrupled since 2000.

The construction on campus is never-ending. The university’s officials say the college will continue growing into the foreseeable future, which prompts multi-million dollar capital requests, most of which the Alaska Legislature has signed off on. During the 28th Legislature, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s talk of belt-tightening resonated with legislative Republicans and put some of the funds for the new engineering building in limbo, but the desire to train Alaska’s future workforce won over the majority's desire for fiscal restraint.

Work on the unnamed engineering facility will continue for two years, and the Anchorage university still needs funding for its academic components, the furnishings and pieces of equipment students will require. The building is lab-based, designed to encourage more hands-on learning, said UAA School of Engineering Dean Tien-Chien Jen.

Part of the school’s goal is to graduate more engineers, as Alaska industries call upon UAA students to fulfill their needs. Steadily growing since 2000, more than 1,000 students enrolled in engineering programs for the first time two years ago.

Does campus have the room?

The four-story, $78.3 million building in progress off of Providence Drive is packed in tightly with structures that snake their way along the north side of the road.

Parking will be affected until the building is complete, as construction has taken a large number of spots in front of UAA’s Wells Fargo Sports Complex and Student Union. Metal framing and a large crane currently inhabit that space. On any given day, construction workers wearing bright orange vests can be seen working on the structure.

Completion is a long way off, and although the university has obtained funding for the building, the tools students will use have yet to be secured.

The University of Alaska System oversees all of the state colleges, with the major campuses located in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. It obtained $10 million for the concept development for two new engineering buildings during fiscal year 2011. Funds were split evenly between the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which is planning a new engineering building of its own, and UAA.

Following the initial funds, the state gave the university the bulk of the funding for the new building, about $58 million, during the next legislative session, said Director of Facilities Planning and Construction John Faunce. Then this spring, the legislature authorized an additional $15 million, just for UAA. Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, introduced legislation for continued funding of the engineering buildings at both campuses, arguing that it was in Alaska’s interest to invest in education.

But Parnell, during his State of the State address earlier in the year, spoke of the need for fiscal restraint, and the Republican-led majorities in both houses pledged to adhere to the theme. Full funding calls for another $100 million for UAF and UAA. In the end, both campuses received $15 million to continue construction.

What supporters say is needed, at least for UAA, includes:

• Money for lab equipment;

• Building furnishings;

• Some $16.5 million in renovations of the old engineering building;

• $28.4 million for the parking garage.

Faunce said he believes the remainder of funding will be appropriated during the next legislative session. Anchorage’s university has already submitted its capital project needs to the UA Board of Regents, which will sift through the multiple campuses' requests and submit its choices to the governor in December. Construction of the engineering building is UAA’s only request, he said.

Engineering on display, and in need

The building is being designed with the idea of engineering on display. Students passing through the building will be able to peak into labs and get a glimpse of what aspiring engineers are working on. The first-floor lab will feature a crane that can move materials in and out of the building. Mechanical rooms on the fourth floor are being designed to allow students to see how the entire building functions.

A sky bridge across Providence Drive, already funded and in the design phase, will be constructed to connect the new engineering building to the campus’s health sciences building, which opened last school year. The two colleges share a close connection and are working together to expand a bio-engineering program, Jen, the school of engineering’s dean, said.

All of the money funneling toward the education of Alaska’s future designers is the result of a growing student body and demand from industry leaders in the state.

Alaska will need 120 engineering professionals annually through 2018, with 50 filling new positions and 70 more replacing retirees or engineers leaving the state, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.

In 2008, the engineering school graduated 84 students. By 2012, that number jumped to 111 -- and the school is aiming to graduate 200 a year soon. UA’s chancellor also set a priority to grow the school’s student body to 1,600 by 2015, but looking at current projections, it’s likely the school will reach that number in 2020, Jen said. But maybe sooner if the new facilities entice Alaska’s youth to pursue an engineering career.

Jen claims 100 percent of the school of engineering’s graduates get a job, with about 90 percent of them staying in Alaska.

Jen became dean about five months ago, and since then has learned about the dynamics and demands of Alaska’s ever-growing infrastructure. In discussions with such industry leaders as Siemens, Geonorth and BP, the dean has heard that companies want students from Alaska, educated in Alaska.

“The first thing they tell me is they want engineering students from us, they desperately need it, and they’ll take as many as we can give them,” Jen said. “Every program in the school is popular ... I think the largest programs are civil engineering and computer science. Electrical and mechanical engineering is growing.” All of them are closely associated with oil and gas, he said.

About 81 percent of BP’s hires are Alaskans, said spokesperson Dawn Patience in an email. In 2012, the company’s Alaska workforce included 2,300 employees and 6,000 contractors, she said.

BP puts its new employees into two categories, graduate interns and new hires. Over the past five years, they have provided internships for 125 University of Alaska students and has extended full-time job offers to 143 students.

During the same timeframe, the company hired 269 graduates. “These new employees come from the Alaska Processing Technology degree programs at (UA’s) campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula,” Patience said.  

Engineering is pushing UAA’s growth forward for the time being, but construction of new buildings won’t stop anytime soon. Next on the list is a second health sciences building because the program has already outgrown its new space. After that, renovation of older buildings, possibly adding floors to two-story facility now packed with students. 

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com