Classes start behind the glass

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Western’s computer science and engineering school opens

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  • Classes start Jan. 11 at Western Colorado University's newest building. Courtesy.
    Classes start Jan. 11 at Western Colorado University's newest building. Courtesy.

With its sleek exterior, breathtaking interior and environmentally friendly functionality, the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering is ready to open its doors to Western Colorado University students in just days.

The completion of the facility was made possible through an $80 million gift it is the culmination of a vision initiated two years ago — to provide students the means of obtaining a degree from one of the nation’s top public engineering schools at an affordable price.

Equipped with a new director, Jenifer Blacklock, Ph.D.,who has guided programs at both the Colorado School of Mines and the University of ColoradoBoulder (CU-Boulder), the Rady School is ready to train future engineers and computer scientists, fulfilling a growing national demand for those skilled in these fields.

Western President Greg Salsbury compared the impact of the new computer science and engineering school on the Western Slope of Colorado to that of General William Jackson Palmer’s narrow-gauge railway navigating the Black Canyon in 1882, a feat that most critics dismissed at the time as impossible. Yet, it was one which had lasting influence.

“With roughly 80% of all philanthropy in higher education each year going to fewer than two dozen schools around the country, what are the odds of a little public school in the middle of the Rocky Mountains landing the second largest donation in the history of all of Colorado higher education to pull this off?” said Salsbury.

Salsbury noted that the significance of the school’s opening goes beyond the structural and technological sophistication of the building.

“The new school is phenomenal, especially with the furthering of a dynamic new partnership between a top-20 American engineering school and a little school known for its teaching excellence, and turning out of exemplary citizens, Paul Rady being one of those,” Salsbury said.

Innovation in education

About two years ago, Western embarked on a game-changing idea—collaboration with CU-Boulder to create a computer science and engineering program, and the construction of a cutting-edge facility in which to house it.

Behind the idea is Western alumnus Paul M. Rady, class of 1978, who wanted to give back to the school he credits with providing him a tremendous education. He also wanted to help students obtain a degree from one of the nation’s best engineering schools at an affordable price.

The principal of Antero Resources, Rady gave Western the largest donation it had ever received—totalling more than $90 million. The money goes toward establishing the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering, creating the University of Colorado Partnership Program with Western, providing scholarships and constructing the building.

Building work began in January of 2019, with final work on the 75,000-square foot Rady School concluding this spring. With the start of the spring semester, classrooms are open students and faculty.

Inside, the facility showcases an abundance of natural light and scenic vistas, while providing a comfortable indoor climate through sustainable methods of harnessing green energy.

The Rady School is LEED Gold certified, which is the second highest rating for green building. Seventy-two geothermal wells dug 280 feet into the earth provide temperature control, only requiring supplemental heating about six days per year.

Engineering the future, hands on

Through the CU Partnership Program—which began in fall of 2019—students spend their first two to three years at Western and then transfer to CU while remaining on Western’s campus. Students enjoy smaller class sizes, more affordable credits and a supportive educational environment. They do this while enjoying the outdoors of the Gunnison Valley.

The innovative program is what drew Joshua Anderson, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, from the Pacific Northwest to the Colorado mountains.

“The Rady program attracted me because I could be at a smaller school while still getting a world-class education from CU-Boulder,” said Anderson, a Rady Merit Scholarship recipient.

The Rady Merit Scholarship is a two-year full-tuition Western scholarship given to qualifying to students.

“The scholarship has allowed me to focus entirely on my studies and not have to worry about money during college,” Anderson said.

Implementing the program is a top-level administrator, who is a powerhouse in the engineering field. Blacklock has more than a decade of experience in engineering curriculum and program development, as well as hands on experience in the industry. She holds dual degrees from Miami University in manufacturing engineering and engineering management. She has a master’s in biomedical engineering. As a Fulbright Fellow, Blacklock earned her Ph.D. from the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, Germany.

“Beyond small class sizes and the resources of CU-Boulder, we’re giving students the opportunity at hands-on learning;’ said Blacklock.

Students have already engaged in what Blacklock calls “design with a purpose” projects benefiting clients of the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte. One such project was to design a bicycle-type vehicle for an 11-year-old girl with a spinal cord injury.

“Project-based courses can help with solving problems in the local community,” said Blacldock. “As a small campus it’s great to integrate into the community, whether it’s Gunnison, Crested Butte or the Western Slope.”

All these factors make the Rady School not only a hub for learning but also a means to provide the state and nation with solutions.

Anderson, who achieved a 4.0 grade point average in his first semester, is looking forward to exploring the new building and tapping its resources to enhance his education.

“I can’t wait to be inside the new building,” Anderson said. “Getting started on projects is getting me excited to be back on campus for the spring semester.”

A grand opening celebration for the Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering is anticipated later in 2021.