Blue Express closing to make way for new engineering program
Blue Express, the Mediterranean eatery in the Levine Science Research Center, closed Friday.
The space will be renovated to accommodate a new design course in the Pratt engineering curriculum. The course will be the pilot in what will eventually be a three-course program called “Habits of a Duke Engineer." The new space will feature an architecture studio with long benches, 3-D printers and water cutters. Renovations will begin soon after Blue Express closes.
Fares Hanna, the owner of Blue Express, also owns Twinnie’s, The Farmstead and Sprout on campus.
“The Engineering School needed ‘maker space’ for a new program and wanted to pilot the program,” wrote Rick Johnson, associate vice president of student affairs for Housing, Dining and Residence Life, in an email. “So the Blue Express space transitioned to them.”
Fares Hanna—owner of Blue Express, as well as Twinnie’s, The Farmstead and Sprout—explained in an email that Robert Coffey, executive director of dining services, notified him of the closure several months ago. Hanna has operated Blue Express since August 1999.
Rising senior Julia Medine, co-chair of the Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee, also heard the news from Coffey. She said Duke Dining did not have much say about the shutdown decision.
“I think representatives from Duke Dining were consulted about it, but they never would have chosen to close Blue Express,” Medine said. “So this was in many ways not a Duke Dining choice.”
DUSDAC was left out of the decision-making process, she added.
“We never were asked for any input on whether or not the place should close, and we never were brought in on discussions over what would happen until the decision had been made,” Medine said.
But those in Pratt are excited about the future of the space, said Ravi Bellamkonda, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. He noted that the new use of the space could be "transformational to our school."
The department will roll out two courses in the "Habits of a Duke Engineer" program following the pilot—one in computing and one in data science—in the spring of 2018, explained Bellamkonda.
“We have a list of things that we think are characteristic features of the future engineer, and no engineering school has fashioned a curriculum to reflect them,” he said. “The idea is to demonstrate to our students the power and potential of these topics so that they can then go on to the advanced classes in those areas."
The design course—the pilot—will offer a “study arranged on special engineering topics in which the faculty have particular interest and competence as a result of research or professional activities,” according to DukeHub.
In the fall, the course will be open to 50 first-years, but Bellamkonda said he hopes it will one day be required of every incoming engineer and open to all Trinity students. Ann Saterbak, who launched a similar initiative when she was the associate dean of engineering at Rice University in Houston, will teach the course.
“Rice had who I think is the best design instructor in the country, and we recruited her to come here and lead this effort,” Bellamkonda said.
The Duke version of the course will look similar to the Rice model, Saterbak—now professor in the practice of biomedical education and director of the Engineering First-Year Experience at Duke—said. Students will work in teams of four or five to build physical and electronic prototypes designed to solve real problems in the community.
“I feel very excited,” Saterbak said. “I think that Pratt retention will go up, I think students will become more excited about engineering and the engineering design process and I think it will also prepare for and contextualize many of the courses to come later.”
Not all members of campus are excited about the change though. Rising junior Cole Williams said he savored Blue Express as a less-crowded alternative to other food vendors.
“I was a little shocked when I first heard the news,” Williams said. “It was kind of sad because the only other place to eat in the E-Quad is Twinnie’s, and that is always packed and doesn’t have a lot of variety.”
Alma Arreola, an employee at Blue Express for 11 years, also said she felt saddened.
“It has been very nice working these 11 years with the same people, and we are almost like family because we work eight hours together every day,” she said. “So it’s sad now.”
Not all will be lost from Blue Express, however. Hanna has offered its workers positions at his other campus vendors, according to Arreola.
Several Blue Express meals will also be incorporated into the menus at Twinnie’s and Farmstead, Hanna said.
“Blue Express offered comfort food with a smile,” he said. “That is what made it so special. We look forward to seeing and serving all of our customers in the same manner at Twinnie’s, Farmstead and Sprout next year.”