Colleges Seeing Building Boom For Modern Science Facilities
October 16, 2002 at 8:15 PM EST - Updated July 2 at 11:40 PM
By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer
OBERLIN, Ohio (AP) - More than 40 years after its launch, Sputnik is again driving a revolution in science on American college campuses.
The world's first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, created a panic that America was falling behind in the space race.
In the next decade, the federal government invested millions on new science buildings for college campuses. Now, small liberal arts colleges nationwide are replacing those outdated structures with sleek new science centers.
"They all went up like mushrooms at more or less the same time and they are all, quite frankly, falling apart at about the same time," said Jim Gentile, dean of natural sciences at Hope College in Holland, Mich., where $36 million is being spent to renovate a 75,000-square-foot science building and add a 96,000-square-foot building next door.
At Oberlin College, past the ancient stone chapel and next door to the aging field house, is a new $65 million science complex, built to replace a cramped, 40-year-old building.
"If you are going to stay active and continue to be a leader in the sciences, it's very facility driven," said Oberlin President Nancy Dye.
An hour away from Oberlin, on the outskirts of Cleveland, John Carroll University, with an enrollment of about 4,300 is building the $66.4 million, 265,000 square-foot Dolan Center for Science and Technology.
Kenyon College, with an enrollment of about 1,500 in the rolling hills of central Ohio, spent $30 million to renovate one science building and build three new ones from scratch. The project was completed last year.
Wittenberg University in Springfield will open its new $23 million science center next August on the campus of 2,200.
"It's going on everywhere," said Jeanne Narum, director of Project Kaleidoscope, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for science education funded by the National Science Foundation. "As the importance of science in society is growing, colleges are re-evaluating, rethinking, dreaming about science on their campuses in a new way."
The Sputnik-era buildings are incompatible with new technologies and teaching styles, Narum said.
"Science education has changed so much in the past 30 years," said Fred Moore, president of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, which is building a $26 million science center on the campus of 1,300 students.
Older buildings were designed for professors to lecture in front of a class, and for students working alone to carry out limited experiments.
The modern buildings are being designed for interactive teaching methods, cooperation between students and faculty, and collaboration across scientific disciplines.
"We are building spaces where faculty and students can collaborate on research projects," Moore said. "And we are putting science on display, with open work spaces so that people walking through the facility who may not be intending to major in science will be able to see it going on and be attracted to it."
Tim Lewis, chairman of the Wittenberg Biology Department, said the new teaching concept in science is much like creating studio space for artists.
"The building is built to be user-friendly for doing science, which means that it promotes collaboration between different areas of science and is a comfortable place to be," Lewis said. It promotes science "as a hands-on experience."
The advocates of these projects speak of eliminating laboratories full of toxic chemicals and dark hallways that reek of formaldehyde. Designed by architecture firms that specialize in science, the new centers have sofas, lounges, sunny reading areas and coffee carts, inviting scientists to interact with each other and nonscientists to drop in.
Daniel Huri, an Oberlin senior from Cincinnati, sat in his high-tech laboratory space, bent over a dish of cells from chicken embryos.
"I spend all of my time in this building," he said. "I eat, drink and sleep here."
He said that was not an option in the old building.
Unlike the old buildings, the new ventures at private colleges are almost exclusively funded by private donations. Larger universities are also upgrading their science facilities, but they generally have more access to state and federal money. The sheer size of their student populations also creates a separate set of challenges for designing buildings to be shared by several science departments.
For private colleges, "There are almost no federal dollars available for new facilities," said Jon Fuller, senior fellow at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Most of the new buildings are financed by fund-raising campaigns that the colleges began a decade ago.
Many administrators acknowledge that part of the reason for building such costly projects is competition.
"We believe that to be a first-rate institution and to provide first-class service -- and therefore by implication to attract students -- you have to have first-rate science," said John Moore, president of Drury University in Springfield, Mo., which is dedicating a $19 million science center Oct. 25.
Lynne Bianci, an Oberlin neuroscience professor, said, "I would not have come here if they were not going to build this building. There would have been no way for me to do my research."
Rosalind Reichard, vice president for Academic Affairs at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said her school's $20 million science building is more about keeping up with technology than keeping up with other colleges.
"We are a women's college and we are wanting to open doors for women that have not been as open as we would like them to be," Reichard said. "You have to have high level instruments that they can work on so that they can go out there in the world and work with them in their careers."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)