Celebrating One Year with New Engineering Labs

Since five specialized labs opened on Barnes Academic Center (BAC) Level 2 last fall, there’s an increase in physics and engineering enrollment, even with COVID-19.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

September 24, 2020 | 11 a.m.

The new space on Barnes Academic Center (BAC) Level 2 opened in August 2019, featuring specialized robotics, fluid mechanics, modern physics, mechanical materials, and mechanical engineering flex labs.

The new space on Barnes Academic Center (BAC) Level 2 opened in August 2019, featuring specialized robotics, fluid mechanics, modern physics, mechanical materials, and mechanical engineering flex labs.

Bethel’s physics and engineering program is nationally recognized for its focus on hands-on learning and open-ended lab experiences. It has significant funding from the National Science Foundation and global research partnership with organizations like Fermilab in Chicago and CERN in Switzerland. 

Physics is foundational to science and engineering, and not surprisingly, “half of our physics graduates—going back decades—have ‘engineering’ in their job titles,” says Department Chair Brian Beecken. 

Over the past few years, in response to growth in interest and the number of engineering job opportunities, Bethel has launched standalone programs in computer, electrical, mechanical, and software engineering. And in fall 2019, five brand new labs opened on Barnes Academic Center (BAC) Level 2, giving students 5,200 additional square feet to do specialized design and research. 

“The new space really allows us to integrate lab work into the classroom more fully,” says Professor of Physics and Engineering Keith Stein. “Classroom learning and labs were done independently before. With the increase in space, if two lab groups want to work simultaneously, they can. There was just not room for that before.” 

The engineering spaces are located on a new thoroughfare from the Community Life Center (CLC) to Royal Grounds coffee shop in Brushaber Commons (BC), making it a more visible part of the entire Bethel student experience. Engineering is also now adjacent to the science addition that opened this fall, providing more fluid interactions and learning partnerships between scientific disciplines. 

Both projects have been entirely donor-funded, with collaboration between Facilities Management and faculty to design and fund the most beneficial spaces possible. And it has paid off already. In fall 2019, there were 132 students majoring in physics or engineering, including nine in mechanical engineering, which had become an official option just a few months earlier. 


Introductory Physics Lab

Introductory Physics Lab

Intro Lab Space

“We’re fully integrating lecture and lab experiences,” says Physics Instructor Alyssa Hamre Kontak. “We’re making space for innovative, interactive teaching, with lots of storage for demo materials so the space can easily switch between disciplines.” Hamre teaches Physics for Everyday Life, a 100-level interim course that meets general education science requirements and draws students from many majors. 

She’s able to seamlessly go back and forth between lecture and diverse labs within that course, or quickly change the classroom over for science education or astronomy courses that also happen there. Modular, movable furniture and ceiling plugs allow for many different configurations and computer-augmented group work. Whiteboards—also called “scribble spaces”—give groups room to brainstorm and share ideas. 

Engineering Materials Lab

Engineering Materials Lab

Materials Lab

Associate Professor of Physics and Engineering Karen Rogers explains that this particular lab is being set up for testing materials for heat transfer, crack propagation, and hardness, which is foundational to mechanical engineering. 

“We have machines that can measure the amount of force on an item when it starts to tear,” Rogers explains, “We can begin to characterize materials like certain plastics and metals, using a tensile tester and temperature chamber to check what’s happening under different conditions.” 

“It’s big and noisy...but set up for looking at how materials behave on a microscopic level,” says Director of Campus Planning and Space Management Mike Lindsey. “Cool stuff! We’re also trying to open up the visibility between the technical spaces in BAC2 and Brushaber Commons, where everyone hangs out...we’re putting science on display.”

Fluid Mechanics Lab

Fluid Mechanics Lab

Fluids Lab  

Stein explains that specialized equipment in the Fluids Lab include water tunnels, wind/air tunnels, and optics tables. High-speed video cameras capture 100,000 frames per second of compressible flows, shockwaves, and supersonic waves; oscilloscopes; and three computing workbenches with high-end processing equipment and COMSOL software that allows students to make a more direct connection between data models and what’s happening in front of them.  

The Fluids Lab features dimmable LED lighting and room-darkening blinds on all the windows, allowing for the tunnels to be lit up for better visibility and video captures. 

Robotics and Devices Lab

Robotics and Devices Lab

Robotics Lab

Beecken notes Bethel has a significant history with robotics-related work, with two courses that have grown significantly in popularity even though they’ve never met a specific degree requirement before. “There’s huge interest and enthusiasm around robotics,” he adds, “It’s an exciting elective for students with interests in physics, engineering, math, and computer science.” 

The room has vaulted ceilings allowing for drone flight. A soldering station with exhaust snorkel and programming stations allow for specific work, while students also have access to the existing machine shop down the hall. That space features 3D printers, a lathe, and a brand new, computer-controlled milling machine (CNC mill). 

Engineering Flex Lab

Engineering Flex Lab

Engineering Flex Lab  

An extra space will allow for additional room where students can work on longer-term projects, leaving their research set up over time and working on it throughout the semester. 

“Project-based learning has been a hallmark of the department as long as it’s existed, essentially. We’re nationally known for it,” Beecken says. “When students go into graduate school and industry, of course they’re doing hands-on things. So we start with that their first year here: open-ended projects, learning how to design, build, and later present their work.” 

The space is also intended to allow for ebbs and flows in enrollment within specific majors. As numbers grow and research interests shift in the coming years, there will be built-in spatial margin to accommodate those changes.

“The new lab and classroom spaces are going to provide us with room to breathe and grow. We can now offer students exciting new options spanning the spectrum of physics, applied physics, and engineering.”

— Professor of Physics and Engineering Nathan Lindquist

By building out these specific spaces, Bethel has rounded out its offering of STEM learning opportunities for students, from theoretical to highly applied. 

Engineering coursework intentionally builds from general to specialized, allowing students who are scientifically-minded to choose a general path and hone it through increasingly advanced coursework as they go—without taking unnecessary credits. The goal, at every turn, is to scale the high-touch learning relationships and strong faculty-student interactions that have become a Bethel hallmark over decades.

Study Engineering at Bethel

As a student at Bethel, you’ll learn from some top minds in science and engineering. You’ll do research side-by-side with prominent professors in cutting-edge laboratories. And you’ll gain hands-on experience and practical skills for designing the devices and programs of the future. Choose from four standalone programs in computer, electrical, mechanical, or software engineering.

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