New labs, new energy

Professor Christian Carloni describes strengths of the new Concrete Lab to a tour group that included alumna Gina Beim, center.

New labs, new energy

With the support of donors, the Case School of Engineering this fall unveiled several new labs that boost hands-on learning.

By Robert L. Smith

Students gain knowledge in the classroom, but it’s in laboratories where that knowledge comes to life as they test formulas and conduct experiments. Thanks to generous donors and supporters, several new labs opened on Case Quad in recent months, enriching the learning experience for science and engineering students.

 

The additions include a full-scale concrete lab, a new materials science lab and an engineering experience lab that exposes first year students to the problem-solving nature of engineering.

 

The new resources and the lessons they make possible are advancing Case further down the path of experiential learning, said Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering.

 

“These spaces are the physical representation of the school’s academic priority: to provide top-of-the-line facilities for students to explore experiential, hands-on learning opportunities from their very first days on campus,” he said.

 

The new labs, in addition to recently renovated spaces like the Aiken Undergraduate Teaching Lab in Biomedical Engineering and the James Lab in Chemical Engineering, broaden access for students across departments to participate in active learning and research, he said.

 

Alumni are often key catalysts behind the new resources, helping the school to address important areas of study. The Concrete Lab is one sturdy example.

 

Modest gifts, big impact

 

Dating to the Roman Empire, concrete remains a popular and dynamic building material. Researchers and engineers continue to experiment with the recipe as they aim for stronger, cleaner, more resilient concrete. For example, Case researchers have been exploring “smart concrete” that fixes its own cracks, thanks to microorganisms poured into the mix.

 

Case’s concrete expertise swelled this fall with the opening of the university’s new Concrete Lab. Gina Beim, MS ’87, MSM ’04, visited the emerging lab in September. She walked into the basement of the Bingham Building and toward the familiar Structures Lab. In a bright, industrial-sized space, she eyed equipment for mixing, curing and testing concrete.

 

“I think it’s on its way to becoming a great resource,” said Beim, a civil engineer and the founder and president MCDA Consulting in Cleveland. “There’s certainly equipment that is state of the art. Some of the research being done there is interesting and unique.”

She helped to make it happen.

 

Beim had kept in touch with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering since earning her master’s degree in water resources systems. One of the department’s emeritus professors, Dario Gasparini, PhD, is her neighbor in Shaker Heights. When he shared the vision of the lab with Beim, she was instantly intrigued.

 

Her first husband, Sergio Beim, MS ’87, was a civil engineer when a work accident took his life. He was interested in concrete and his research for his master’s degree from Case included building and instrumenting small-scale models of concrete bridge decks. A paper based on his thesis was later published in the American Concrete Institute Structural Journal.

 

“I was looking for a way to honor him and this seemed like a good fit,” she said.

 

Beim describes her contribution to the project as modest but her support resonated. She penned a letter to other members of her husband’s class, asking them to support the lab, and several did so. She also promoted the lab with friends and family.

 

Still unfinished, the 2,200-quare-foot lab is already busy with students mixing, casting and testing concrete.

 

The work is vital, said Gasparini, who drew up the initial designs for the lab before retiring from teaching in 2015.

 

“Concrete is one of the most widely used materials in the world. So it’s important that we know how to improve it, how to design it, how to understand its properties,” he said.

Interest in the behavior of concrete—a mix of cement, sand, water and additives—has accelerated as it has emerged as a cheaper alternative to steel and becomes the foundation for more and bigger structures, including long-span bridges and tall buildings.

 

Engineers have found that concrete weakens in larger structures. What’s the problem?

 

Christian Carloni, PhD, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, will play a leading role in efforts to find out. He arrived from the University of Bologna, Italy, in 2018, bringing expertise in structural engineering both ancient and modern.

 

“Now there is refinement in our knowledge of the performance of concrete,” he said. “So there is more we need to study and test.”

 

He and his students will do so in an uncommon lab that complements a modern Structures Lab and a world-class Geotechnical Lab one floor above.

Gasparini is excited by the array of resources.

 

“All three of these labs are state of the art,” he said. “They are not as big as some labs at other schools, but they are really competitive laboratories.”

 

‘Brawny Bingham’ transformed

 

The Concrete Lab is only one of the additions bringing a modern vibe to brawny Bingham. This fall, the Susi First Year Engineering Experience Lab opened full time. Filling a corner of the ground floor, the bright, spacious lab exposes first year students to different facets of engineering through hands-on projects and teamwork.

 

A refreshed hallway connects the lab to a handsome student lounge furnished with couches and study tables. The new lounge was fashioned from a grungy basement den long known as “the Pit.”

 

The transformation was made possible by a major gift from Roger Susi ’77, a medical imaging innovator and the founder and president of Iradimed Corporation. He worked with faculty to design a lab and a program that groups students into project teams to solve challenges while learning fundamental engineering skills.

 

“We think we can get the students excited by exposing them to different engineering disciplines early on,” said Kurt Rhoads, an assistant professor of civil engineering and the faculty director of the First-Year Engineering Experience. “We want to teach them skills in the context of what engineers do—fix problems.”

 

Dean Balakrishnan describes three distinct ways in which project-based experiential learning benefits students:

  • It reinforces knowledge introduced in more traditional lectures and builds subject matter fluency
  • It allows students to apply theoretical knowledge to real-life problems and real-world experimentation
  • It develops skills in leadership, teamwork, and communications
  •  

“All are vital to their future success, no matter where their career paths may lead,” the dean said. 

 

 Those sentiments inspire another new lab just a short walk away.

 

New material world

 

Bob Smialek ’65, MS ’67, PhD ’70, a materials scientist and a veteran corporate executive, has been visiting campus for 50 years and observing the building upgrades. But this summer marked the first time he walked into the Charles M. White Metallurgy Building—the scene of so many of his college memories—and saw a new material world.

 

A long-awaited, $1.2 million renovation has added new luster and capabilities to a 60-year-old science hub. The White Building now beckons with a glassy new entrance off Case Quad. Just inside, a bright new materials sciences lab can be seen though glass walls. It’s complemented by new offices and an attractive student lounge.

 

“It turned out to be way more than I expected,” said Smialek, one of several alumni who championed the project. “It’s a complete transformation for the students.”

 

Smialek delivered a keynote address at the August 30 building re-dedication. Later, he reflected upon what motivated he and other alumni donors, who included his classmate Siegfried Hecker ’65, MS ’67, PhD ’68, as well as Jennie Hwang, PhD ‘76, the first woman to earn a doctorate in materials science from Case Institute of Technology.

 

“I think a lot of us would say we owe our careers, to a large extent, to what we learned at Case,” Smialek said. “We’re paying it forward a little bit.”

 

No one was happier to see the results than Frank Ernst, PhD, the chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Ernst helped Smialek cut the ribbon to the rededicated building. He beamed as students streamed inside.

 

“The renovation constitutes a phase of transformation that will energize students, staff and faculty,” he said. “And to prospective students, it will present materials science as the modern field it truly is.”

 

That’s what a new lab can do.

 

To learn how to support labs and research spaces at the Case School of Engineering, please contact Emily Speer at Emily.speer@casealum.org.

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Alumna Gina Beim, left, joined a tour of the new concrete lab at Homecoming 2021.

“I think it’s on its way to becoming a great resource. There’s certainly equipment that is state of the art. Some of the research being done there is interesting and unique.”

— Gina Beim

Students learn engineering skills through group projects and competitions in the Susi Lab

A new materials science lab greets visitors to the White Building.

Instructor Michael Butler helps students Andrew Mahall and Daniel Cohen cast concrete that they will cure and test against a specified strength as part of ECIV 311, Civil Engineering Materials.

The Pit is now a handsome lounge in the basement of Bingham.

The Susi Lab is part of the transformation of Bingham.

Alumnus Bob Smialek helped Professor Frank Ernst cut the ribbon to the rededicated White Building.

“The renovation constitutes a phase of transformation that will energize students, staff and faculty. And to prospective students, it will present materials science as the modern field it truly is."

— Bob Smialek