Digitally Connected Campuses Offer Enhanced Experiences

By Will Quinn, Solution Lead, Black & Veatch

Will Quinn is a Solution Lead for Black & Veatch's Connected Communities Business Line. With a background in Urban Planning, he develops strategies and provides innovative technology solutions for cities, metropolitan planning organizations and universities looking to modernize their infrastructure. Throughout his career, Will's focus has centered on urban revitalization efforts through public-private partnerships, sustainable development, and the implementation of smart and connected cities.


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Colleges and universities face similar challenges as cities and municipalities when it comes to implementing modern digital infrastructure. Recognizing the value of widespread connectivity, these entities want to leverage robust communication networks to deploy emerging technologies – which boost competitiveness and improve the quality of life for their communities – but are currently grappling with shrinking budgets.

Unfortunately, the higher education system in the U.S. continues to face the economic toll brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove many students to either attend remote classes off-campus or to leave school entirely until the traditional college experience returned. As a result, many schools are taking a hard look at how to address declining enrollment numbers and are reshaping campus operations to stay attractive to the upcoming generation of students – who are accustomed to digitally enabled services and experiences.

Implementing Emerging Technologies

Campus-Wide Living Lab

One way schools are looking to differentiate themselves in the eyes of prospective students is to transform their campuses into 5G living labs. As experienced at Purdue University, modernizing campus infrastructure offers students the opportunity for a hands-on learning experience with cutting-edge technologies – such as autonomous vehicles, drones, automated robotics, IoT, augmented and virtual reality – and provides an environment that is agile enough to conduct experiments involving future use cases.

By turning their campuses into living labs, universities unlock new pathways to partner with local municipalities and companies.  Announced in 2018, Portland State University’s Digital City Testbed Center (DCTC) convenes researchers with technologists and entrepreneurs to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of deploying technology in cities by first testing them on the PSU campus. This mutually beneficial partnership allows students to interact with new technologies and provides the city of Portland information about smart city technologies before citywide implementations. While originally focused on sensors that monitor multimodal traffic and air quality along smart corridors, DCTC recently partnered with Cisco and Sensible Building Science to use PSU’s wireless routers to track building occupancy in an effort to dilute and disperse COVID-19 via targeted ventilation.

Another campus embracing technology whole-heartedly is the University of California San Diego (UCSD), which recently partnered with the California Energy Commission and the New Energy Nexus on the CalTestBed Initiative – a program that provides clean energy entrepreneurs access to testing facilities throughout California. Through this initiative, UCSD is working with local startup, Nuvve, as they showcase their pioneering vehicle-to-grid technology that optimizes electric vehicle (EV) charging and lowers the total cost of ownership for EVs. Due to UCSD having its own microgrid – which is self-regulated – they are an ideal partner as they can accelerate time to demonstration and eventual commercialization compared to off-campus sites located within a utility’s governance. Due to this unique circumstance, last year it was announced that UCSD would receive a $39 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a first-of-its-kind testbed, DERConnect, to better understand how to integrate distributed energy sources such as wind turbines, solar panels, smart buildings, and EV batteries into the power grid.

Network of Connected Kiosks

While creating a microgrid may be unrealistic for most universities, many schools have turned to digital kiosks as a more manageable and cost-effective solution for modernizing campus infrastructure. Beyond just a connectivity hotspot that can fill in coverage gaps, kiosks are being utilized by schools to disseminate up-to-date information – campus events, maps, announcements, dining hall menus and are often strategically co-located at bus stops to provide real-time transit arrival times and trip planning. Not only that, but some colleges are buying kiosks simply for the added safety benefit, and are replacing blue-light poles – which are traditionally found at universities nationwide – with kiosks equipped with cameras and video screens that can display emergency messages and evacuation routes as well as provide a direct connection to emergency responders.

Similar to a smartphone, kiosks are able to be customized with applications that result in new capabilities. For example, two graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a solution to deploy contactless vitals-sensing kiosks throughout the campus. The kiosks are outfitted with thermal cameras and off-the-shelf optical, acoustic, and radar sensors, with the goal to support rapid daily screenings at building entrances around campus.

Hybrid Campus Operations

Given the massive disruption the COVID-19 pandemic caused universities, many schools are already preparing for the next mass health event by implementing infrastructure necessary for flexible operations. Despite most schools expecting full attendance this fall, hybrid learning – a combination of remote and in-person teaching and learning – appears to be a trend that will continue. The hybrid model allows schools to diversify traditional teaching techniques by providing interactive collaboration tools which attempt to make the remote learning experience as close as possible to the in-person environment.

While some universities are even considering virtual reality options, most are resembling William & Mary, which recently outfitted some classrooms with cameras, screens and integrated whiteboards to create real-time engagement opportunities between local and remote attendees. By removing geographical barriers, this blended model increases opportunities for education access – whether that means a class can now have a guest speaker from halfway across the world, or a student who has an extenuating life event is still able to attend class.

To reach this future state, colleges and universities should work with a trusted partner to analyze, adopt and deploy these advanced technologies. With a history of creating digitally connected communities, Black & Veatch has the expertise and experience to assist universities in designing and implementing a customized campus-wide solution that ultimately integrates critical systems and assets – telecommunication networks, power and water systems, transportation networks, vehicle charging infrastructure, data centers, microgrids, physical and cyber security infrastructure – with sensor networks, communications infrastructure and data analytics. Infusing intelligence throughout these systems will enable administrators and facility managers to use real-time insights to establish campus resiliency.

Preparing for Tomorrow’s Opportunity, Today

Following such a tumultuous school year where change was the only constant, perhaps there is no greater opportunity for colleges and universities to reimagine their campuses than there is today. To stay relevant in today’s increasingly competitive educational marketplace, schools must embrace the smart technologies that will enhance the collegiate experience and ensure seamless operations regardless of the next crises. By being proactive and planning now, schools can install the robust communications backbone and agile infrastructure necessary to support emerging technologies and create the connected campus of the future.

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