University at Buffalo Dean of Engineering Kemper Lewis grew up in a suburb of Dallas never having heard of his future career.
“There were no engineers in my family, so when my high school counselor noted that I was strong in math and science and said I should consider being an engineer, I knew I didn’t want to drive a train,” he said. “Seriously, that’s how much I didn’t know about what engineers do.”
Lewis now oversees a major expansion at UB’s engineering school – a $102 million project that could have a major impact on the Buffalo Niagara economy and UB.
“This new building is not only about education, but about regional impact and talent retention,” Lewis said.
The new facility will give UB a new calling card in the intense competition to attract the best and the brightest engineering and science students – a battle that pits UB against well-known and established engineering schools like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institution, Clarkson University and Cornell University.
That could raise UB’s profile in the engineering world and turn it into more of a magnet for those highly coveted science and math-oriented students.
And it comes at a time when UB’s engineering and science school is expanding rapidly. The school’s undergraduate enrollment is up 60% over the past decade, while the number of graduate students has more than doubled. Last fall, the engineering and science school enrolled close to 5,000 undergraduates – a near record during Covid – and a high of 2,621 graduate students.
The stakes are high for the Buffalo Niagara region, too.
Engineers are part of the lifeblood of any local economy – and if UB succeeds in expanding and building its profile as an engineering school, it will give the region’s businesses the first look at the next generation of engineering talent. And a ready supply of engineering talent is a big selling point for companies like Moog Inc., which relies on engineers to develop and design cutting-edge products.
Many of Buffalo’s new startups also were founded by or employ engineers. As Buffalo startup guru John Gavigan notes, “If the startup community’s job is attracting and building new companies, they won’t continue to do it unless they know they can get the talent.”
The demand for engineers will only increase. A March report by the Brookings Institute found that 14 of the 16 fastest-growing “industries of the future” are industries in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Every one of the top 25 degrees, ranked by pay and demand, are in the STEM subjects. And by 2025, Brookings predicts that there will be 3.5 million STEM jobs open in the United States.
Lewis, 52, has been imagining a student-centered building since becoming dean of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2020.
That wish became a plan on Jan. 5, when Gov. Kathy Hochul announced in her State of the State address that UB and Stony Brook would be designated as flagships of the SUNY system, with plans to build them into world-class research institutions positioned to bring in $1 billion each in research funding by 2030.
As a first step, Hochul said SUNY will strengthen both universities’ engineering schools, with new $100 million buildings at each, to meet rising demand for engineers and tech professionals nationally and across the Buffalo Niagara region.
SUNY will cover two-thirds of each project and the universities will need to come up with the other third. That amounts to state support of $68 million for UB’s new building and $34 million for UB to raise.
For Lewis, the governor’s backing means he gets to shape a new UB landmark that he envisions as a collaborative hub, an engineering think tank and “the first building on campus dedicated to the student experience.”
He views it as a building that will help the engineering school expand in more ways than square feet.
Constructing a beacon of technology and talent will help UB elevate itself as a prestigious engineering school, recruit more researchers from around the globe and apply that talent and those innovations into the region’s workforce and tech development, Lewis said.
The new building, which UB hopes to open in time for the fall semester of 2025, will be a 140,000- to 150,000-square-foot addition to its North Campus engineering school, whose six existing “halls” are already serving new and expanded programs to meet the area’s tech surge and the resulting “enrollment bulges,” Lewis said.
UB is expanding its aerospace engineering program – the only one in the SUNY system – and launched new master’s degree programs in data science and artificial intelligence that are growing “incredibly fast,” Lewis said.
“Two years ago, we had 96 students enrolled in data sciences and four in the new AI program,” he noted. “This year, we have 360 master’s students in data sciences and 40 in AI.”
UB recently merged two institutes for these fields – the Artificial Intelligence Institute and the Institute for Computational and Data Science – to form the UB Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science.
Lewis envisions the new building helping in other ways, too.
• Research: The engineering and sciences school currently brings in 25% of UB’s $426 million in research grants, mostly from the National Science Foundation. That’s expected to increase with early phase research projects poised to receive more funding in future phases, said UB Vice President for Research and Economic Development Venu Govindaraju.
• Collaboration: The new digs will provide design and maker space and a home for the 40-plus engineering clubs now scattered as far as the South Campus. Currently, clubs that build everything from robotic vehicles to concrete canoes for national competitions have to find classroom space to work on their projects, Lewis said.
That will result in more team-building, ideas and successes in high-level competitions that put engineering schools on the map.
• Education: The engineering school’s newest department, the 4-year-old Department of Engineering Education, will also live in the new building along with classroom space for future engineering teachers.
Since many education professors also teach classes for first- and second-year students in core subjects like mechanical, electrical and civil engineering, “supporting those students at the foundational level is critical to retention,” Lewis said. Graduating top engineers means not just recruiting good students, but supporting them to succeed early on, he said.
• Partnerships: Lewis and other UB leaders will be reaching out to industry partners that have a stake in the new building, including those that already support the school’s professorships, programs and competitions as well as its startup and entrepreneurial assistance programs.
Lewis, who has served as the school’s first Moog Professor of Innovation in a three-year, $1.3 million partnership with the motion-control systems giant, knows the value of higher education collaborating with industry.
“We want to partner with our regional private and public stakeholders to expose our students to the incredible emerging opportunities they have to continue their influence on the world right here in Western New York,” Lewis said.
Those partners include Moog, ACV Auctions, Safran, National Grid, ValueCentric, U&S Services, Unifrax, Tapecon, Linde, Tesla, Amazon, M&T, Curbell, SoPark and others.
Design and sustainability
While Lewis doesn’t know what it will look like, since the design phase is just starting, he said the new HQ has to show a flair for design and sustainability, two important facets of engineering’s future. All of the school’s existing buildings except for Davis Hall were built prior to the early 1980s and look it.
“Many of our buildings are pretty brutalistic in design,” Lewis said. “I want the new building to be beautiful and also inviting. I want there to be a level of activity all day, every day, going on in that building that sends a message to potential students coming in with their families to look at, ‘What kinds of things will I be doing if I come to UB and study engineering or computer science?’”
In other words, the building Lewis gets to help build will answer the question he had in high school: What do engineers do?
“Now I recognize that engineers solve problems and help people – not only technical problems, but environmental, medical and societal,” Lewis said. “I’m committed to making sure the next generation of engineers and computer scientists recognize early how much impact they can have on the world with their gifts and talents in math and the sciences.”
A look back at UB’s Engineering Buildings
Bell Hall (1974) 72,020 square feet – Houses the departments of Computer Science & Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Industrial Engineering with research space for designing tools, objects and work environments. Lawrence D. Bell (1894-1956) developed the Bell Helicopter and founded Bell Aerosystems.
Furnas Hall (1977) 110,496 square feet – Houses the departments of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering with space for systems design research and an interaction computation lab. Clifford C. Furnas (1900-1969) was a chemical engineer, metallurgist, aviation researcher and Olympic athlete as well as a former UB chancellor and president.
Jarvis Hall (1981) 59,614 square feet – Houses classrooms and academic research including an Electronics Tinkering Lab. Gregory Jarvis (1944-1986) was a 1967 graduate of UB’s electrical engineering program who lost his life with six other crew members on the space shuttle Challenger. The Engineering East building was named for him in 1987.
Ketter Hall (1981) 44,716 square feet – Houses the Civil Engineering Department, including one of only 11 earthquake simulators in the world. Robert L. Ketter (1928-1989) became the first head of the department in 1958.
Bonner Hall (1982) 65,264 square feet – Houses SEAS administrative offices, classroom and lab/research space for all engineering departments. William R. Bonner (1899-1980) was an English professor at UB from 1922 until his retirement in 1968.
Davis Hall (2012) 146,824 square feet – Houses the departments of Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering as well as SEAS current Office of the Dean. Jack and Barbara Davis are the UB engineering alum and his wife who gave $5 million for the facility.
Future Hall, Name TBD (2025-ish) – approximately 150,000 square feet – Will be a home base and gathering place with research, design and maker space for SEAS’ 40-plus student engineering clubs; and house the SEAS Department of Engineering Education, the Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science, the offices of undergraduate and graduate education and the new Office of the Dean.
Title: Dean, UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences since 2020
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and math from Duke University; master’s degree and doctorate in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. MBA from UB.
Career: Became UB professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1996. Has been principal or co-principal investigator on research grants totaling $18 million-plus.
Why UB? “There was something different about UB. I had never been to Buffalo, but I sensed from my first visit to campus during an interview, that there was something special happening here. I am a person of faith and I know my steps were being directed. I can look back now with enormous gratitude for the opportunity I have had to be part of the history making movement here at UB.”