Fairfield University’s School of Engineering unveiled its newest inclusion to their academia as they performed a ribbon cutting ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 22 for the modern Innovation Annex located on Coughlin Road behind ELLI Schools and across from Barnyard Manor.
While the building had a soft opening for engineering students on Sept. 15 where they were able to access most of the area, the afternoon consisted of mingling with drinks and breakfast, a speech from University President Mark R. Nemec, Ph.D., a ribbon-cutting ceremony outside and a formal opening of the remainder of the building for attendees to explore.
In the short address, Nemec shared that “We’re not just opening the Innovation Annex for the School of Engineering, in many ways we’re putting yet another stake in the ground on our path to being a 21st-century university of national prominence.”
He goes on to further state that “If you are going to be a great modern Jesuit Catholic university, you need to have a great modern Jesuit Catholic engineering school. And under Dean Carrano’s leadership and with this facility, we are taking another step forward in that direction.”
The Dean of the School of Engineering, Andres Carrano Ph.D. notes that in addition to university funding through strategic capital investment, a handful of donors including Bob Sobolewski ‘70 and his family also contributed to the financial commitment needed to renovate the space. Before the two years of planning and seven to eight months it took to create the Innovation Annex, it was known as the PepsiCo Theater. Now, however, it is the first location on campus that provides engineering students with a unique space that they weren’t provided with before.
Carrano further explains that the Innovation Annex is made up of multiple sections. “The main area, called the Design Studio, is a flexible multipurpose space that is meant to foster student collaboration,” Carrano said.
Students are provided with tables, whiteboards, televisions and projectors where they can work on whatever is needed such as classwork or even their own projects.
The Maker room, which is located in the back of the building, is still under construction. Nevertheless, the proposed plan will allow the space to include prototyping of fabrication. It gives students the opportunity to come and build a gadget that will support their next invention where they can also print, laser cut and build it. Carrano shares that “eventually, this will create a model where students who are trained to operate these machines help the students that are not.”
Lastly, the Sobolewski Family Innovation Laboratory is an area that is allocated for student clubs and student professional societies. Most notably, the room is designed as a garage and therefore allows the Baja team to take up the most space as they build vehicles.
Carrano notes that before the Innovation Annex, “The Baja team was locked away in the basement room so it wasn’t conducive to their work. This team, for example, needs space to do welding and that cannot be done in confined spaces.”
The Baja team, an off-roading vehicle club, is a student-run team that designs, builds and competes with their newly built automobiles in the Society of Automotive Engineers International Baja Buggy Collegiate Design Competition.
Junior John Chiodo, president of Baja, shares that the space “means a lot of growth […] we finally have a space to expand into, develop and get hands-on experience.”
There are also numerous other innovator clubs that are welcomed to the Sobolewski space such as Tau Beta Phi Honor Society, Engineering Student Society, Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Automotive Engineers, Association of Computer Machinery, Biomedical Engineering Society, Engineers Without Borders, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
President of Engineers Across Borders Dominic Oliveri ‘24 said that “this new space is really exciting for all of the engineers on campus. It gives us an open space to collaborate, work on projects and hold club meetings.”
“Everyone loves it,” Carrano stated. “It was not going to be all dedicated to students, it was going to be a hybrid with some industry component, [but] I decided to turn it over to just students.”
This statement holds true as multiple students in attendance shared their appreciative sentiments, like Charlotte Savigny ‘26 who said, “I love that there’s a space for engineers to work and collaborate with each other on projects that can change the world.”
First-year Claudia Hepher also explained that “it’s great that they’re expanding the school of engineering. It’s such a nice place to come and work on my ‘walk on water’ project.”
Walk on water is the final project for the “Fundamentals of Engineering” first-year course where students have to build a contraption that will get across the RecPlex swimming pool in mid-November.
Senior Engineering student Eric Hawkinson also notes how “it’s in a great location because it’s in a part of campus where we don’t have a lot of academic buildings.”
In addition to students and faculty, numerous alumni of Fairfield’s school of engineering were in attendance. Most were in good spirits while witnessing the expansion of the program, such as Norman Eaton ‘75 who shared that he was “happy to see that the engineering school is growing.”
Michael Buckenmeyer ‘11 notes further that having the Innovation Annex is an incredible resource for current students and something he wished he had during his undergraduate years. “It would have been everything. During my time we didn’t really have a space where we could develop and innovate,” Buckenmeyer states. “This is the exact thing you need as an engineer – you need a place to explore. This is an amazing day for the engineering school.”
With the long-awaited opening of the Innovation Annex, Emeritus Senior Vice President of Research and Academics, Richard Heist Ph.D. shares that being able to see its completion “feels wonderful.”
“I made a special effort to come up from Siesta Key in Sarasota, Florida because I left so much of my heart here at this university,” Heist continues. “I still stay in touch with the faculty because this place means a lot to me.”
Before the renovation process took place, the building was completely dark as it served as a black box theater. “It was just a mess … the building was just storage,” Heist states. Once they received the rights to the building, a board of advisors formed and they talked about where they wanted the building to go and what their vision would look like. And now, it has come to fruition.
The Innovation Annex was built to foster and promote innovation, new ideas, creation of new technologies in a collaborative manner, and will “hopefully, be a place where ideas can be generated all the way to prototype” Carrano ends.