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New Facility Provides Opportunity for Students and Researchers at the University of Arkansas

New Facility Provides Opportunity for Students and Researchers at the University of Arkansas

By Luke Carothers

On July 20th, 2021, the ribbon was cut for the Grady E. Harvell Civil Engineering Research & Education Center at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  The event was heralded by speakers such as Dr. Micah Hale, Head of the University’s Civil Engineering Department, as well as the University’s Acting Chancellor Bill Kincaid and the building’s namesake, Grady Harvell, President of W&W/AFCO Steel, inc.  There were several other notable speakers including the Dean of the College of Engineering Kim LaScola Needy, Ph.D. Student Elizabeth (Bette) Poblete, Former Arkansas State Representative Andy Davis, and NWA District Representative for the Office of Governor Asa Hutchinson, Stephanie Blevins.

The new facility is certainly cause for celebration for the University of Arkansas Engineering Community.  This $14 million dollar building is now a learning tool for the students and faculty of the University’s Engineering Departments, allowing them to conduct advanced testing of civil engineering infrastructure.  

According to Dr. Gary Prinz, director of the Harvell lab, this project is the result of discussions that began taking place over two decades ago.  Starting in the late 1990s, senior members of the University of Arkansas Civil Engineering Department began discussing ways to elevate the program to the next level.  One fruit of these discussions was the realization that, in order to both catch up with peer institutions and allow researchers at the University to push the cutting edge, there needed to be a new, large-scale testing facility.  This need was addressed beginning eight years ago when meetings began regarding the funding and construction of a new facility. 

One of the driving forces behind this push for a new facility was Grady Harvell, President and CEO of W&W/AFCO Steel.  Being a graduate of the University’s Civil Engineering Bachelor’s program in 1972, Harvell provided a crucial estate gift commitment that allowed the project to reach their fundraising goal.  Driven to improve the University’s research capabilities, Harvell’s gift and efforts have provided students and researchers at the University with the means to conduct testing and research that will impact not only the state’s infrastructure, but the nation’s.

Dr. Prinz calls this new facility a “game changer” for the students and researchers at the University.  The new facilities allow students to receive hands-on experience testing and studying large structural components–visualizing how these components deform and break under extreme loads.  This has serious implications for the way in which professors at the University teach their classes.  For example, in a steel design class, students typically learn about several modes of failure such as block shear, bolt shear, or excessive bearing.   The difference in experience between learning about these modes of failure in a classroom rather than testing them and feeling and seeing the physical effects of their failure is what the new facility provides.  Dr. Prinz believes that this will give students a more complete understanding and education.

This complete understanding and education is woven into the design of the building.  The building’s floor is reinforced, but its design is flexible.  The floor is roughly 38 inches of concrete with overlapping pieces of 1 inch steel rebar forming a mat.  The laboratory floor is outfitted with a grid pattern of four holes turned on a diagonal, resembling diamonds.  Each of these holes is a tie-down with a threaded bolt.  This means researchers and instructors can connect columns and various arrangements of test figures.  The flooring system is capable of supporting a number of different structures and arrangements for testing.  Each of the floor connections is capable of supporting 240,000 pounds of axial uplift resistance and 220,000 pounds of shear resistance–every four feet.  Various components of this system are pre-stressed and connected through large threaded rods.  The shear keys at the bottom of the system, which function much like lego pegs, allow for horizontal reactions up to 220,000 pounds.  

However, this fascinating system designed for testing large structures doesn’t stop its toy comparisons at legos.   The pieces that are plugged into these lego-like holes also function similarly to the classic Erector Set.  The columns that are inserted into the system of holes are also designed with unique intention.  With holes every 4.75 inches, the system has a massive capacity to react against the floor.  Overtop this flooring system sits a 25 ton overhead crane, which gives researchers even more flexibility in terms of the tests they can execute. 

The Grady E. Harvell Civil Engineering Research & Education Center is also equipped with several other features that improve the lives and work of students and researchers.  One such feature is a state-of-the-art materials testing lab, which allows researchers to study and develop new ways to make concrete last longer and be more durable.  Within the material testing lab, there are a series of environmental chambers that allow researchers to cure concrete at different temperatures and humidities.  Combined with the advanced flooring system, this will give students a better understanding of what causes buildings to fail and allow researchers to develop cheaper, better concrete.  Additionally, the concrete materials lab enables researchers to take on new projects in different areas, working with bodies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers to develop more resilient concrete for VTOL aircraft.  In addition, the new facility is outfitted with a metallurgical lab that allows students and researchers to focus on steel as a structural element.  In order to look at different specimens and how they perform under stress, the lab has a machine to subject them to both torsion and tension at the same time.  This is especially crucial for researching how the materials and buildings will react to seismic forces.        

In the larger context of Civil Engineering education in the United States, the Grady E. Harvell Civil Engineering Research & Education Center puts the University of Arkansas on par with the top of the field. This means that the University is better able to compete for research projects that typically go to larger schools.  In fact, Dr. Prinz believes that this new facility will be a catalyst for expanding the department’s reputation; he believes that the restrictions the department previously faced have fostered a sense of creativity and innovation in the way testing is done.  Now that these restrictions have been removed, Dr. Prinz believes that this same sense of creativity and innovation will help the University be more competitive and solve the country’s infrastructure problems.

According to Dr. Hale, the new facility is also instrumental in attracting undergraduate and graduate students as well as in retaining faculty.  In terms of recruiting undergraduates to the Civil Engineering program, this new facility provides a space to bring in both high school students and undecided undergraduates and demonstrate what civil engineering is truly like.  This same process can be used to attract undergraduates from different institutions who are considering a graduate program in Civil Engineering.  The recruiting of both undergraduates and graduates is bolstered by the inclusion of both collaborative space and student offices in the building.  The new facility is also pivotal in retaining talented faculty and researchers.  Dr. Hale believes that faculty was previously limited in terms of their testing equipment, which limited what faculty the program could retain.  Now, with the lack of testing ability behind the department, Dr. Hale believes that the only thing that limits them is the scope of their creativity and innovation, making the Civil Engineering department at the University of Arkansas a much more attractive place for aspiring researchers.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.