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The John Wilson Heavy Structures Lab advances student learning and innovation

Posted by Engineering Communications on November 23, 2023 in News
John Wilson Heavy Structures Lab
John Wilson Heavy Structures Lab

Dalhousie’s John Wilson Heavy Structures Lab is a space where students can explore,  experiment and learn.

Now thanks to a large gift by Mike Wilson, CEO of Atlantic Industries Limited (AIL), and his family, the lab is now even better equipped to advance immersive learning opportunities for Dalhousie Engineering students.

That’s exactly what it did for Garrett Smith while completing his Masters of Applied Science degree at Dal.

The lab served as Smith’s second home. There, he broke things, put them back together, experimented with new materials, and discovered how structural engineers could change the world.

“When I was going through my degree one of things that drew me towards structural engineering was that I could see it all around me. Whether I was driving over a bridge, walking by one of Halifax’s ever emerging new apartment buildings or just going into the grocery store I recognized the things I was learning about. It was fascinating to understand how these things stood up,” recalls Smith.

“What my time in the John Wilson Heavy Structures showed me was the other side of this coin, what happens when structures fail,” he continues. “You can’t really understand how structures work until you understand what happens when they stop working. And you can’t fully grasp that until you can witness it yourself.”

Under the supervision of Dr. John Newhook, Director of Dalhousie’s Centre for Innovation in Infrastructure, Smith had the opportunity to work closely with long-time Dalhousie Engineering partners AIL. His work caught the attention of AIL leadership.

“Most of my Master’s degree was spent in the Heavy Structures Lab where I designed a custom gauge for the evaluation of timber bridges in the field and then used them on a 1/3 scale prototype timber bridge which I constructed and tested myself,” he says. “AIL was impressed by my work in the lab, and I started working with them near the end of my Master’s degree.”

Donor Support

Today, the John Wilson Heavy Structure lab looks very different than when Smith first stepped inside the facility in 2016.

A gift from the Wilson family has transformed the way engineering students and researchers design and innovate within the lab.

For nearly two decades, AIL and Dalhousie’s Centre for Innovation in Infrastructure have collaborated on the research and development of some of AIL’s top product lines. The close partners conducted much of their work inside the Heavy Structures Lab.

In 2019, the facility was re-named the John Wilson Heavy Structures Lab in honor of John Wilson, founder of AIL. The gift by the Wilson family allowed for the expansion of the facility, making room for more equipment, and providing students and researchers with much needed space to experiment, design and test.

The lab allows students and researchers to test full size structural elements. Smith says the specimens and the equipment used during testing are both large and cumbersome. However, the gift from the Wilson family and AIL has helped alleviate many of the challenges previously faced and expanded the number of opportunities available to students interested in studying structural engineering at Dal.

“Students now have a dedicated area where they can experience the lifecycle of a structure from start to finish,” says Smith. They source the material, they form it in to a structure, they place all the gauges and sensors on to it and then finally they are able to break it. It’s an experience unlike anything else they will do during their program and the gift from the Wilson family makes it so that more students get to jump in and get their hands dirty.”

“It’s amazing for me to see how much the lab has changed since I was a student. I’m almost jealous of the students who get to use it now,” he adds.

Coming Full Circle

Since graduating with his degree, Smith has had the opportunity to return to the John Wilson Heavy Structures Lab on multiple occasions. This time as a Geo-Structural Engineer with AIL.

One of several post-grad Dal engineering students to have been hired by the company over the years, Smith says he’s grateful to the organization for giving him the opportunity to continue working in the area of research and development.

“I really enjoy doing research, I find it fulfilling and I’ve found a very unique position where I still get to do what I love. And it’s research with a purpose,” he says.

In addition to his work, Smith has also had the chance to become involved as an AIL industry mentor, guiding and advising fourth year Dal civil engineering students working on their final year design projects. His says the relationships between AIL and Dal is strong and productive, advancing not only research opportunities but also contributing to the growth of future dal engineering leaders. He hopes to see the relationship continue to grow in the future.

“The most rewarding part for me personally is being able to set up testing in the lab with our co-op students, showing them around the lab for the first time and seeing in them that same spark for experimentation that I first found in myself through working in the Heavy structures lab years ago.”