You are here

Undergraduate Research Grows Up

Science facility upgrades are the rage on campuses especially as other institutions score big with their new buildings.
University Business, Aug 2007

SCIENCE PROFESSORS BEGAN shifting their classroom curricula in the early 1990s. Turns out, studies showed that they could attract more students to their disciplines if the kids were allowed to get their hands on the good stuff. Participating in research as early as freshman year-and we're talking not talking about dissecting a frog-fosters a contagious excitement. Ricky Cox, a biomedical chemist at Murray State University (Ky.), invites his undergraduates to help him in the lab, and as a result, one girl recently graduated with five publication credits to her name.

Who couldn't use a slice of prestige just like that?

But, of course, it takes the right space to make that happen. Michigan Technology University had its graduate students make room for its undergraduates in the same building. With 177,000 square feet of academic research space and 390,000 square feet of instructional space, professors aren't complaining about sharing, says David Reed, vice president for research.

More commonly, higher ed institutions are opting to upgrade existing space or start over with a new building, architects in this niche say.

Aesthetics count. "We're trying to be inspirational as much as instructional," explains Larry Lord, principal for science facilities at Lord AECK Sergeant architectural firm in Atlanta, Georgia. So although the labs themselves must answer to heavy-duty research standards and special codes, the overall building is a different story. Architects are reaching for atriums and open spaces that not only lighten the mood but invite students to witness the hum of excitement inside.

"We're creating a community of science learning as opposed to sticking students on a bench," Lord says.

MOTIVATION: Hired Sibdas Ghosh away from the University of Wisconsin in 2001 to start an undergraduate research program. He began with 30 biology students; today he has more than 130.

TIMELINE: Completion expected this month

COST: $21 million

ARCHITECT: TWM Architects and Planners in San Rafael, Calif.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: When Ghosh, a biology professor and the chair of the natural sciences and mathematics department, introduced the new research program at DU in 2001, he didn't just open the doors to upperclassmen. Freshmen and sophomores are working alongside their professors on locally significant research such as the whys behind the breast cancer rates in Marin County, finding causes for sudden oak death and making stem cell advances. The 35,000-square-foot science center will offer seven teaching laboratories and six research labs.

To date, Ghosh has enjoyed a 100 percent placement rate among students seeking spots in medical schools around the country, including UCLA, Loyola University, Chicago, and the University of Michigan.

"Nationally competitive students don't always have to be coming from Harvard," Ghosh says.

THE MONEY WILL COME IF STUDENTS learn," says Dominican University's Sibdas Ghosh. Yes, upgrading facilities means attracting a higher caliber faculty and producing the results that land prestigious grants. But while you get the ball rolling, take another page from Ghosh. His school is providing the basic space, but the professors are asked to stock their labs via grant money. Maggie Louie recently received a $150,000 three-year grant to study breast cancer. She'll use those funds to buy the necessary equipment and chemicals.

MOTIVATION: When the Blackburn Science Building passed its 50th birthday, officials knew it was time to start over with a new complex.

TIMELINE: Three-phase project expected to be complete in late 2009

COST: $58 million

ARCHITECT: Hastings & Chivetta Architects in St. Louis

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Since undergraduates and graduates will share research space, MSU leaders went for a solid science foundation-no planetariums here, says Neil Weber, dean of the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology. Instead, it's full of details like high-access space to accommodate mechanical projects, wireless data entry points, LAN connections, and archiving capabilities. The design includes offers eye-pleasing touches like multicolored tile floors, soft carpeting where appropriate, and a grassy commons connecting the buildings.

Since moving into the building phase, CSET enrollment has grown at double the rate of the campus in general: MSU had a 2.5 percent increase, while Weber's college saw nearly a 6 percent boost. MSU has one of the highest average ACT scores of incoming freshmen in Kentucky public education, and it has been the launching pad for numerous outstanding medical careers. Retention rates for the CSET have also grown between 4 and 6 percent annually.

HOW FANCY A UNIVERSITY gets with its undergraduate research space depends on its focus. Students see the biggest space and equipment discrepancies at tier one research universities, deans acknowledge. But when an institution's undergraduate population rules, the gap narrows considerably.

Still, architects can pick out these differences in research space:

- Lab space for an undergraduate facility is smaller: 20 feet by 20 feet. It still contains the same caliber equipment, however, laid out in a similar footprint, says Larry Lord of Lord AECK, an architectural firm. "We call on our people who do major research laboratories to help with undergraduate buildings."

- Lab space for graduates is more of an open expanse. Undergraduate space is sliced into smaller cubicles, as students tend to work alone at this level rather than in collaboration.

- Thanks to the smaller dimensions-and the need for more traditional classrooms in conjunction with the labs-undergraduate space still costs less despite the fact it is stocked with comparable microscopes, animal cages, etc. As a general rule, Lord tells clients to plan on $225 to $250 per square foot for an undergraduate science building, and roughly $450 per square foot for a graduate building.

- Undergraduate spaces are more cheerful. Certainly designers need to avoid reflections near microscopes and other similar considerations, but the usual black-and white color scheme of a graduate space gives way to shades of gray for the younger students. Occasionally, you'll even see a plastic laminate top replace resin.

- Graduate research space needs are driven by the latest grant a faculty member landed, according to David Barkin, a principal and director of science and technology at CJ Architecture in Hartford, Conn. Undergraduate research is more curriculum driven and therefore predictable.

BUILDING: Cathy '83 and Marc '81 Lasry Center for Bioscience

COST: $13.8 million

HIGHLIGHTS: Undergraduates share common lab space in some courses, but enjoy their own bench space in others.

BUILDING: Health and Science Center

COST: $31.2 million

HIGHLIGHTS: The center's two new buildings include classroom, lab, and administration space for undergraduate and graduate learning. The second building includes training facilities with state of the art technology to simulate real hospital situations.

BUILDING: ExxonMobil Lawrence G. Rawl Engineering Practice Facility

COST: Approximately $11 million

HIGHLIGHTS: Hands-on student projects for engineering science undergraduates in practice bays. Administrators sold this first-in-the-nation concept to the board by describing it as a practice facility for engineers, similar to what athletes enjoy.

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>