Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center: Changing the way engineering is taught

After Norm Asbjornson left Montana State College (MSU’s former title), he realized the importance of collaborating with individuals within a variety of disciplines in order to be an effective engineer. In 2014, Asbjornson promised $50 million to Montana State University if it would design and construct a building that promotes interdisciplinary collaboration by changing the way engineering is taught. According to the innovation center website, “the Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center will promote dynamic interdisciplinary engagement, meaningful student-faculty interaction and accelerated innovation that responds to and anticipates emerging trends in education, industry and society.” On top of his contribution, Asbjornson required that another $20 million had to be raised in order to have a building that could respond to his wishes and the needs of the university. Through large fundraising campaigns driven by the Alumni Foundation, the remaining funds, all coming from private donations ranging from $10 – $5 million, were obtained, and the construction on the new innovation center has begun.

The Building:

The 110,000 square-foot Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center will be home to nine classrooms and 17 laboratories, a presentation hall and display space for engineering projects. It will also house the Honors College. The main focus of the building was finding a new way to teach engineering. University Architect Randy Stephens stated, “I think what got our attention very quickly was Norm’s challenge of changing the way engineering is taught and how to go about doing that through architecture.” He explained that although there will be common ties between the design of the new building to the architecture around campus, “the image of the building is going to be a little different than we have on campus, but I think it’s up to the challenge of changing the way engineering is taught, and perhaps the architecture in the building can respond to that.”

Stephens described how the building’s design will promote the sharing of ideas. “It’s also one of the few buildings that I’ve seen that is almost without a corridor. It is a building that has one big [center] and all the spaces connect back to that; that’s going to be the heart of the building. It’s really going to pull some of the things that happen behind walls out into the open space,” he said.

Stephens stressed that although the building may be designed to change the style of engineering teaching, the building is not just for engineering students. The design team hopes that, “other students will find the building that may have no courses there or no connection to what’s going on, but they will go there just because of the place. Because of that, we’ve spent a great deal of effort to choreograph what happens in that center atrium; that’s where those important interactions are going to happen.” With students from various disciplines using the space, there is a greater chance of academic cross-over. Stephens said, “so you can start seeing that engineering students may have conversations that are overheard by someone in the music department that may have an effect on what they do sometime in the future.”

On Thursday, Sept. 22, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the innovation center. With hundreds in attendance, President Waded Cruzado, Asbjornson, Dean of the College of Engineering Brett Gunnick and MSU student Bukola Saliu dug their shovels into the ground, initiating a construction process that is expected to be completed by January of 2019. At the ceremony, Cruzado announced, “[This building] will create a beautiful space embracing the best of architectural design to encourage students from different majors and interests [to work] together, [and] to be motivated by each other and their faculty members so that everyone can innovate in ways previously unavailable to them.” Included in the construction process is the 550-space parking garage expected to be completed this January.

The Man:

Norm Asbjornson was born in 1935 in Winifred, a small town in the middle of Montana. Asbjornson, a man with humble beginnings, in a press conference announcing his donation, Asbjornson recalled, “As a child, I remember my mother counting pennies to figure out how much we could eat.” Starting at an early age, Asbjornson was eager to make money, collecting bottles and selling them back to stores and bars at a penny apiece, delivering papers and working for farmers, stocking hay and driving tractors. At age 10, his uncle offered him a Model T Ford for feeding and watering hundreds of chickens. After a summer of hard work, he learned that the car had been flooded and the engine had been too rusted to start. Working in his father’s garage, he worked on the car until he got it running.

When his time came to attend MSC, Asbjornson was not prepared for his engineering classes. He had to take remedial math to prepare himself for his college math courses. During his time at MSC, Asbjornson joined the military, spending nine months in Korea. Coming back to MSC just days after arriving back to the United States, he finished his studies and graduated from MSC with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1960.
After working in various advisory roles, in 1989 Asbjornson founded AAON Inc., a heating, ventilation and air conditioning manufacturer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he has been Chief Executive Officer and President ever since. Realizing that not all his business and engineering endeavors have been profitable, Asbjornson imparted his view of success at his press conference advising, “Those who are the most successful are also those who have failed the most.” He went on to explain, “You don’t get successful unless you reach far and try hard. And when you reach far and try hard, the likelihoods [sic] of failure are greatly magnified.” Throughout his career, looking back on the education he received at MSC, Asbjornson said, “While I was in awe of people from these very prestigious colleges and universities within the U.S., as the conversations went around engineering, I never got lost … I came to realize how tremendous my engineering education was.”