The Peter Kiewit Institute is to be congratulated on important steps it’s taking to put the University of Nebraska — and the Omaha area in particular — on the map nationally as a center of engineering and technology excellence.
PKI’s new $7.5 million renovation, paid for through private donations, marks a landmark step forward for this important academic center. The renovation allows PKI to proceed with important moves that were recommended in a comprehensive strategic review of the institute in 2008.
PKI serves as a joint base for engineering programs provided by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and for information science and technology programs provided by the University of Nebraska at Omaha. What’s significant is less the new construction itself than what it’s to facilitate:
>> Top-tier research. The premier level of scientific work these days most often involves multi-disciplinary teams of scientists across a range of fields including engineering, information and life sciences. The vast majority of major federal grants are extended toward such projects. The 2008 strategic study by a group of nationally respected experts underscored these points.
This has been the main need for improvement at PKI; addressing it is critical if PKI is to move up in national recognition.
A key step forward was the appointment in 2009 of Michael McGinnis as PKI’s executive director. McGinnis, a native of Wisner, Neb., held a variety of scientific leadership posts in the U.S. military, including head of the System Engineering Department at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At PKI, McGinnis has overseen a variety of changes to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration among faculty and students. The new renovations — which increase PKI’s overall lab space by some 40 percent — are an all-important tool in that effort.
The newly created spaces at PKI — special “research zones” as well as social areas for daily casual conversation among scientists — are in the same spirit as collaborative spaces that leading-edge tech companies now routinely use and encourage.
This scientific cross-pollination also will extend to projects with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, another goal highlighted by the 2008 study.
>> University interactions and collaboration. The 2008 report said it was crucial to “develop better synergy between the components units of PKI”: UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology and UNL’s College of Engineering.
Greater interaction between the two colleges will boost the quality of the research and promote smoothly running operations at PKI, which is located on UNO’s South Campus.
>> U.S. Strategic Command connection. The University of Nebraska last year established a five-year research contract with the Department of Defense. The renovations at PKI provide research spaces that meet the security standards for top-secret government work — making research of that kind possible at a University of Nebraska institution for the first time.
This change marks the beginning of a strong PKI-StratCom partnership, another need discussed in the 2008 report.
A remaining need is to boost the supply of PKI graduates. The 2008 report noted that the volume fell short of local industry need, and World-Herald reporting last year noted the same challenge. PKI currently has around 2,000 students, split about evenly between UNO’s information science college and UNL’s engineering college.
The good news is that plans are underway to address the issue through a major proposed expansion of engineering faculty and undergraduate students in Lincoln and Omaha. Final recommendations are expected to come before the Board of Regents in June.
PKI fills a vital long-term role in boosting the University of Nebraska as well as the state’s economy. The institute’s leaders deserve a cheer as they continue to strengthen this forward-looking Nebraska institution.