The Wilkinson Building: Reimagining Engineering Education

4/1/21 DukEngineer Magazine

When students returned to campus in January 2021, they were welcomed with 150,000 square feet worth of new and exciting opportunities

Exterior of Wilkinson Building with Duke Chapel in background
The Wilkinson Building: Reimagining Engineering Education

With the Spring 2021 semester comes a new addition to the Duke community. The Wilkinson Building, at 150,000 gross square feet, opened for classes for the first time in January 2021.

With two floors dedicated entirely to active student learning, the teaching and design laboratories have been specially created to foster student engagement and hands-on learning. These floors also contain specialized educational centers focused on innovation & entrepreneurship, along with a 200-seat auditorium and a Learning Commons aimed at enriching the student experience. The next three floors in the building house “research neighborhoods” that focus on health innovation, computing and intelligent systems, and environmental health. Equipped with 35 lab modules, over 170 graduate student workstations and over 50 offices, the research facilities at Wilkinson pave the way for increasing collaborative opportunities for researchers across campus.

Jim Ruth, associate dean and director of development for Duke Engineering, believes that the Wilkinson Building will revolutionize engineering education at Duke. “I think it is going to be difficult to imagine what Duke Engineering was like before this building,” he says. “It will transform the student experience in an extremely meaningful way on multiple levels.”

Ruth details how student learning space for the school has been increased by 50 percent, with teaching spaces designed to be open and flexible, conducive to a flipped-classroom approach and other non-conventional lecture methods. “Another great thing about the building is its location,” he explains. Located at the nexus of Duke Engineering, medicine, and arts and sciences, the Wilkinson Building will “bring engineering closer to Trinity and to the rest of the Duke community, while continuing to grey the lines between engineering and non-engineering,” Ruth says.

Masked students working inside a laboratoryThe process behind designing the Wilkin-son Building was extensive. An idea conceived almost 10 years ago, plans for the building continued to take shape based on the evolving needs of engineering education. Throughout the process, the student body and faculty were consulted, along with models at other universities.

“We really tried to look at not the history of engineering, but how we wanted students to be able to learn and how students told us they wanted to be able to learn moving forward,” says Ruth.

This led to the creation of not just active-learning classrooms, but active-learning auditoriums. These are structured to allow students to have enough space for group discussions and interactions, irrespective of class size. “It is incredibly rare to have a space where you can fit 200 people but still have the space for students to comfortably turn around and work in smaller groups,” adds Ruth.

Another exciting aspect of this building is the unique art collection that it will showcase. Mitchell Vann, director of facilities for Duke Engineering, was instrumental in forming a committee dedicated to selecting artwork for the building.

Masked students sitting around a table“There is a real focus on all kinds of art, in fact, the building hosts the first hologram on campus,” says Ruth.

The vision behind creating these spaces was to defy the notions of a stereotypical engineering classroom and to construct a more holistic environment, where the definition of an engineer can become more fluid. “The idea is to have a place that encourages engineers to focus just as much on art, ethics or culture, as they do on the technical side of things,” says Ruth.

As students gear up to take on new courses and challenges, the Wilkinson Building will undoubtedly play a vital role in reshaping the student learning experience at Duke. For engineers and non-engineers alike, an exciting experience awaits.

Ria Thimmaiahgari is a junior majoring in biomedical engineering and computer science.