Over its 85-year history, Gonzaga University’s engineering program has adapted to meet the demands and challenges of its time and place, University President Thayne McCulloh said.
When the School of Engineering opened in 1934 with 31 students, a year after Grand Coulee Dam construction started, its main goal was to address the demand for engineers in hydroelectric power.
Within the next 20 years, the school shifted focus to building roads. Don Herak, the namesake of the Herak Center for Engineering, learned the skills he used to lay miles of highway with Acme Concrete during his time at GU in the early 1940s.
Soon after that, the school started training electrical engineers to send to Boeing.
Now, the need is for more student capacity and collaboration between STEM fields. Gonzaga’s response is a new $56 million Integrated Science and Engineering facility, called the ISE for now.
It’s among a number of costly and ambitious recent projects on campus. Over the past six years, GU has approved spending of more than $125 million to construct about 387,000 square feet of new facilities
The $60 million Hemmingson Center opened four years ago next week. The $24 million Volkar Center for Athletic Achievement and the $13 million Della Strada Jesuit Community residential building followed. Work on the $30 million, 57,000-square-foot Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center just finished this spring.
But when then university breaks ground on ISE this fall, it will be its first fully academic construction project in more than a decade.
Located on the hillside overlooking Lake Arthur and the soccer fields, the ISE will connect the PACCAR Center for Applied Science, which opened in 2009, with the chemistry and biology departments in Hughes Hall via a sky bridge. The new building will add almost 82,300 square feet of labs, classrooms, faculty offices, study spaces and a collaborative space called the “innovation studio.”
McCulloh said he imagines ISE acting as space for collaboration between the sciences, engineering and even business. The school’s New Venture Lab and entrepreneurship programs have been invited to share space in the innovation studio.
With dozens of new faculty offices, the Engineering & Applied Science and Arts & Sciences deans will relocate professors who could better collaborate across disciplines in closer proximity.
This will be an important job for two new deans at the school, which makes the timing of the project ideal, McCulloh said. The university welcomed Karlene Hoo as its first female engineering dean this summer. GU should announce the selection of a new Arts & Sciences dean by the end of the calendar year, university spokesperson Mary Joan Hahn said.
“Deans play a really important role in working together with their faculty to develop a vision for where the school needs to go,” McCulloh said. “And this facility becomes a part of imagining what the future looks like for Gonzaga engineering and science.”
Three new academic focuses McCulloh said he expects are material science, hydrology and neuroscience. But he said the school, for the most part, won’t predetermine any new programs and will instead allow collaboration to happen naturally.
“That was part of the concept here,” McCulloh said. “Let’s bring people together so we can create, wherein the opportunity to develop these kinds of projects is optimized.”
One requirement for the project to be built within 200 feet of the Lake Arthur Shoreline was a rehabilitation or enhancement plan, which has been an ongoing interdisciplinary project between environmental studies and biology students. It involved reintroducing native plant and animals species to the wetlands, McCulloh said.
In 2015, McCulloh said the university saw the need for more space to accommodate STEM students. The school also wanted to be more competitive against other higher ed programs across the West Coast.
“In a sense, students are looking and comparing ‘Where is the institution that I believe I can get into that’s going to afford me the best opportunity?’ ” he said. “There’s a lot of competition. There’s a lot of great programs.”
In the past five years, Gonzaga says its applications to STEM-related majors have increased by more than 120%, but engineering enrollment has declined each year since fall 2015, from 961 students to 887 in fall 2018.
McCulloh said he expects STEM enrollment to grow more in the next couple years. If so, it would mirror what happened when the number of first-year students with theater experience jumped 26% in 2018, before completion – and seemingly in anticipation – of the new Woldson Center.
The engineering school had 546 students in 2008 and increased enrollment to 910 students in 2013, four years after the PACCAR Center opened. That building is 25,000 square feet, less than a third of the size of ISE.
With architectural plans from 2018 in hand, the university is shopping for construction bids now. The target date to open the building is fall 2021, after an aggressive construction timeline of 18 to 20 months.
The university first started developing the project site in the spring of 2017, the school newspaper reported. And since the city of Spokane approved the distance from the shore of Lake Arthur in February 2018, McCulloh said university leaders have been mulling over how to fund the project.
The university’s board of trustees agreed to finance the $56 million project by taking out construction bonds and spending some of its reserves to get the project off the ground.
“We kind of need it as soon as we can get it,” McCulloh said.
The university’s goal is to supplement its spending by raising between $12 million and $15 million in donations, McCulloh said. But many donors are tapped out or still paying off pledges from the $355 million Gonzaga Will fundraising campaign, which funded scholarships, academic programs and past construction projects.
McCulloh said the school is talking with a potential lead benefactor – as happened with PACCAR, Herak and Woldson – and plans to reach out to those who didn’t give to the Gonzaga Will Campaign for support.
In the long run, growth in student capacity should offset other construction costs, McCulloh said.
To support more students, McCulloh said he expects the school to announce a housing project in the relatively near future. There are no plans in place now, but he said some possibilities could be an addition to the 170-unit Coughlin Hall dormitory or a whole new building of that size.
For now, McCulloh said he is excited about the students who will be able to work on innovative projects together at ISE.
“I’ve always felt like, if we’re doing our work well at Gonzaga, that our students can emerge out of this whole experience feeling like they not only learned a bunch of stuff that was really useful technically, but they also had the opportunity in their understanding of how to be creative,” he said.