By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. — The year is 2028, and a state-of-the-art building has opened in the heart of UW-Madison’s College of Engineering campus. It’s six times larger than the Depression-era building it replaced and designed to last a century or more.
More impressive than the structure itself is what’s going on inside — and how it helps the economy in Wisconsin and beyond.
Here are my forecasts for that expanded engineering footprint, provided the Wisconsin Legislature signs off this summer on plans years in the making and already backed by private donors and public down payments.
- Undergraduate admissions in engineering have climbed by 1,000 students, from 4,500 to about 5,500, which still leaves the college among the smallest in the Big Ten Conference but helps more homegrown Wisconsin students gain admission. In 2023, only one in seven qualified candidates made the cut. With more students in the pipeline, the workforce needs of companies in Wisconsin — one of the nation’s leading manufacturing states — are beginning to be met.
- Researchers and students are helping Wisconsin farms become more efficient and independent by harvesting the energy those farms are already producing.
- Electrical and other energy grids, which can be vulnerable to cyberattacks and more, are being hardened against security risks with the help of engineering researchers and their student assistants.
- Human health is being improved by researchers and students in the college’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, which is developing safer ways to move hospital patients in and out of beds; creating safer helmets to reduce concussion risks; and finding more effective ways to treat traumatic brain injury.
- One of the nation’s leading Departments of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics is working on the future of nuclear energy, including commercial fission.
- Researchers and students in the college’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory are collaborating with others to find ways to overcome today’s hurdles to adoption of electric and self-driving vehicles. Those include making longer-lasting batteries, engineering a more robust network of charging stations and developing new materials that aren’t reliant on unstable foreign sources.
- A range of challenges related to the environment are being addressed. Researchers and their student assistants are finding better ways to recycle plastics. They are working to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from production of cement, the most widely used substance on Earth after water. Today, cement accounts for 8% of all carbon emissions. They are finding ways to remove, capture and even disintegrate the most harmful types of PFAS chemicals, which is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. New energy sources, such as hydrogen, are advancing toward various forms of commercial use with the help of college research teams.
- Wisconsin’s competitiveness in manufacturing processes, which has helped the state weather recessions over time, is being improved by research teams spread across departments such as Industrial and Systems Engineering, Materials Science, Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering.
- Researchers within the college are already the source of about 140 invention “disclosures” per year, meaning ideas that could be patented, licensed and become commercial products or processes. That will grow with more space for people with ideas.
- Startup companies are growing roots in that fertile research soil, many coming from students and faculty in departments such as Chemical and Biological Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering and others already mentioned. Nearly 60 tech-based startups were born in the College of Engineering over the past 25 years; that many and more can be expected to add jobs and value to the economy in the years to come.
This futuristic glimpse at the engineering building proposed for a site flanked by Madison’s Campus Drive, North Randall Avenue and Engineering Drive can still happen if the Wisconsin Legislature approves the $347-million building, a price tag that would include $150 million in private funding. Lawmakers may have their beefs with the UW System and the Madison campus, but they shouldn’t halt a project so vital to the state’s future.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com