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ChE Revolutionizes Its Student Hub

For many years the communal student work center in the basement of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department was so cramped, dark, and primitive that it was nicknamed "The Cave"; a name and conditions that evoked the famous remark of Thomas Hobbes that life is "nasty, brutish, and short." Not anymore! In the past year the ChE department has moved its student work area into a light and commodious space on the first floor of Goessmann Lab and transformed it into a high-tech, student-friendly, cheerful hub known as the CRIB. That's short for ChE Research & Innovation Base. The transformation is thanks to a group of dedicated donors, the leadership of ChE Department Head T.J. Lakis Mountziaris, and a visionary group of ChE faculty overseers, who planned, designed, decorated, equipped, and modernized the whole area.

Now the CRIB is a student work space worthy of the 29th-place ranking (out of 120 Departments nationwide) the UMass-Amherst ChE Department was recently issued by U.S. News and World Report.

The CRIB is designed as the birthplace of many creative projects and an incubator for student innovation. What the CRIB gives the ChE department is a new home base where students can meet, socialize, study, use sophisticated computers, upload interactive teaching programs, hear lectures, and collaborate on projects.

As one enthusiastic student said while working with a group of four others in the welcoming environment of the CRIB, “I think this place is really great! You can quote me on that.”

Mountziaris explained that “The CRIB is about a year old now. It started first as an idea, then became the focus of a campaign that raised $50,000, and now is a reality. In the meantime, with the coordination of our faculty committee, we equipped the space with 24 new computers, new furniture, 12 cubicles with whiteboards for small group meetings, an open area with a projector and screen for larger meetings, and a new paint job. That was phase one.”

The zealous faculty committee is made up of Paul Dauenhauer, Shelly Peyton, and Jessica Schiffman, who with the help of the ChE Office Manager Amity Lee have turned the donations of many motivated alumni into this lively new student center. ChE Alumni Mike Sarli '75 and Ron LaBarre '73 spearheaded the fundraising effort with a challenge gift that other donors matched to make CRIB a reality.

“I think the alumni are really keen to donate to the CRIB fund, because they lived in the old space, which was called the Cave for good reason,” said Peyton. The Cave was so funky, she added, that “It almost has lore to it. The alumni are really excited to make this space better for current students.” The department decided to preserve the old Cave for sentimental reasons and it will continue to be available to the students as a second study room.

The maximum capacity of the new CRIB is about 100, as compared to 30 for the old Cave. Now the CRIB has appropriate size for the almost 400 students currently in the ChE Department, compared to 120 a decade ago. Beyond a large configuration of cubicles containing group work stations, one open end serves multiple uses, acting as a lounge with comfy furniture and a group meeting space, which can quickly be converted to a lecture area seating about 30 students.

“The CRIB is overwhelmingly popular,” noted Schiffman. That popularity took a lot of work and careful listening to student needs.

“There were lots of decisions and changes needed to make the CRIB as student-friendly as it can be,” said Dauenhauer. “We kept upgrading it according to student feedback. Originally, we thought the students would want to work in big groups. But the students quickly let us know they’d rather work in small groups. So we converted these cubicles so they featured workstations for smaller groups of four. That conversion has been really, really popular.”

Peyton added that “They love the CRIB now.”

As Mountziaris noted, “The new computers we put in there are state-of-the-art. They are equipped with the software the students need for all their classes. In addition, students can use their own laptops and, of course, employ wireless connections. It’s a completely interactive environment.”

With phase one a shiny new reality, the faculty committee is already busy collecting student feedback and discussing the possibilities for upgrades. Further changes are already in the wind.

“We’ve been talking about having something similar to a conference room on the opposite side from the open lounge,” said Dauenhauer. “We would set up an interactive smart board, a long table, and video conferencing technology, and 15 or so students can sit in on a meeting at one time.”

Another problem the students have brought up is shielding individuals working alone from the clamor of groups working together elsewhere in the CRIB. As a response, Dauenhauer said that they’re considering installing glass noise barriers or buffers between the cubicles and sound absorbing material on walls.

To finance such upgrades, Mountziaris explained that a continuing account has been set up so that donors can support the evolution of the CRIB into a cradle of learning worthy of such a fine department. Alumni and friends can donate to the CRIB fund by visiting and directing their gift to the CRIB fund after selecting “College of Engineering” from the drop-down menu.

“It’s a fantastic place,” summed up Mountziaris. “We’re celebrating 60 years of Chemical Engineering at UMass Amherst in 2013. We’re the top public Chemical Engineering Department in New England. To maintain our regional leadership and improve our national standing, we need to be constantly innovating and improving our facilities.”

Peyton added that “CRIB is an amazing space for our amazing students!” (May 2013)