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Branam Innovation Center is Where Student Creativity Never Takes a Back Seat

June 3, 2014

BIC Students

Where Innovation Lives: Members of the Human Powered Vehicle Team put the finishing touches on their award-winning project, sharing space with other student project teams in the spacious Branam Innovation Center. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

Ethan Skinner doesn’t hold back his sense of pride and satisfaction about the Branam Innovation Center, simply stating, “It’s the best thing about Rose-Hulman.”

The senior mechanical engineering major isn’t alone in that sentiment. On any given day—and well into each evening—hundreds of students apply their hands-on skills and team-working abilities to become the next generation of innovative engineers and scientists.

In less than two years, “The BIC” (as it’s commonly referenced) has become filled with advanced transportation vehicle competition teams, academic senior capstone design project teams, other academic projects and club activities, and even a group of local high school students that advanced to this year’s FIRST Robotics World Championships.
The building is home to national championship-winning human-powered vehicles, combat robots, concrete canoes, sustainable hybrid vehicles, high-flying aircraft, chemical reaction-based cars, and swift drag-strip racers.

“It’s truly a happening place, especially in the late winter/early spring as teams prepare for regional and national competitions,” says Dean of Innovation and Engagement Bill Kline, PhD, who supervises the building. “There is no syllabus or course outline for the projects. We provide students the opportunity to be creative and innovative.”

The 16,200-square-foot building, located on the northeast corner of campus, was inspired by former President Matt Branam to be a dynamic and energetic place with flexible workspace to facilitate inter-team collaboration. The building allows students to hang out, test ideas, push the limits of engineering, and lead competitive engineering contests around the world.

"Matt imagined a big space where students could work late into the night perfecting team projects. This is where theory turns into practice, where conflicting ideas get debated and tested, where friendships are born, and respect is earned,” states Rob Coons, senior vice president and chief administrative officer.
Grand Prix Engineering Team Leader Brandon Hasenour appreciates the collaborative spirit between the advanced transportation vehicle teams. Members share parts and tools, help solve common problems, and cheer on each other.
“Like Rose-Hulman’s campus atmosphere, we’re one big happy family here. If one team wins, we’re all winners,” says the senior mechanical and electrical engineering double major. “If a freshman comes in and wants to join a team, we’re appreciative of the extra hands and ideas. They can jump right in. There’s always something to do around here.”
Grand Prix teammate Craig Altmann adds, “I don’t feel the same if I’m not here doing something every day.” He estimates spending 30 to 40 hours each week in the building during the peak of the racing season. Sarah Kemme, president of civil engineering’s new steel bridge team, says she “spends way too much time” in the building. But she quickly adds, “I love the energy and excitement in this place. I have made friends here that I wouldn’t have made anywhere else on campus.”

Before the Branam Innovation Center was added to the campus landscape, competition teams were scattered throughout campus and other off-site, institute-owned facilities. Now, every project is in one central location and they all benefit from having a massive tool and part supply, and access to state-of-the-art equipment, machine shop, welding room, paint booth, and a conference room. The building has also become a great showpiece to impress corporate partners, equipment donors, and potential students.

“You see visitors come in and their eyes light up and they immediately say ‘Wow’,” says Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Zach Chambers, PhD, director of the advanced transportation program. “It is an impressive place, especially when students from most of the teams are working hard to finish a project. That’s when the place takes on a life of its very own.”
And, as intended, the Branam Innovation Center enhances the educational experience for students.

“Our formula sprint car provides a real-world application for what I’ve learned in the classroom,” Hasenour states. “Course material on DC/AC electrical circuits helped us select the appropriate electrical wire sizes for this year’s vehicle.”
Skinner, leader of the fuel-efficient vehicles team, adds, “I’ve always love tinkering. Our project offers a great way to get your hands into engineering and using the skills I have learned in college.”