Magazine On-line [fall 2009]
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by William A. Bowden

Seen from outside, the nearly 40-year-old, red-brick Brown Science Center looks much the same as it has since its opening in 1970. But step inside, and the view changes dramatically.

A $9 million, multi-year laboratory renovation project, now more than half complete, is transforming the building into a state-of-the-art facility highlighted by bright, modern, spacious, newly refurbished and furnished labs that are drawing rave reviews from students and professors.

“The contrast between the old and the new is stunning,” said physics professor Jamie Day, whose program’s two first-floor labs were the first to be completed. “Overall, it’s a much better place to teach and learn, and our students are realizing the benefits.”

Seven renovated labs are now in use, with four more scheduled to come on line in the next year or two. Completion of the project will depend on fund-raising, which still needs approximately $2.5 million (see sidebar).

“This vitally important project is showing good progress, though we still have a significant amount of work to do,” said President Charles L. Shearer. “The University is very appreciative of all the donor support we have received thus far. This is an investment in Transylvania’s future that is paying very visible dividends.”

Exceeding expectations

Impetus for the project came from the need to be up-to-date with equipment and furnishings, such as the new fume hoods installed in a chemistry lab, but also from two significant changes over the past four decades in the way science is taught and learned. Teachers today want to eliminate the disconnect between a classroom explanation of an experiment one day and the lab the next day by combining the two in a teaching-friendly lab space. And today’s students work in far more collaborative ways than their predecessors, which calls for more spacious, flexible labs to accommodate working together in various sized groups.

On all counts, the renovated labs are meeting or exceeding expectations.

Biology professor and program director James Wagner points to his Animal Behavior course as a prime example of the way the new labs were designed to work. The class met in the biology flex lab, so named because of its high degree of flexibility in the way the room can be set up and in its various components, including a separate room in which to keep animals.

students looking at fish
The biology flex lab includes ample room to house various forms of animal life that students use in experiments.

“We did a study looking at crayfish aggression—they’re very aggressive—using hormone blockers to monitor the shift in behavior,” Wagner said. “We moved the tables from a lecture arrangement to double-table areas for students to work on in small groups. Each group was doing the same experiment, but everyone was doing their own sample, unaware if their specimens had the hormone blocker or a control saline solution.

“So we had this big space where everyone was working at the same exact time, and as they work the experiment and data comes in, we can put it up on the white board and analyze it as a group. All the time, I can walk around and assist them. So it was both a classroom and a working lab, at the same time. For me, it was a perfect example of how we envisioned these rooms to be used.”

Another situation illustrating the versatility of the flex lab was a session where Wagner was teaching scoring behavior—how to observe and record the behavior of animals under study. Using the room’s projector system, he put a camera over a group of crickets and threw the live video to a screen that all could see.

“This was a lecture, since I explained how to score behavior and collect the data using a computer program, and also a lab because they did the observations, recorded the data, and then we analyzed it together. Again, it was a great hybrid of lecture and lab in one session.”

Bethany Hosford, a junior biology major, did an experiment in her Animal Behavior class that looked at the behavior of frogs put on a light/dark cycle, using the rooms adjacent to the flex lab designed for this purpose. “It was only because of the renovations that we have these specialized rooms to put animals in and adjust the light conditions,” she said.

Hosford is also a big fan of the moveable tables found in the flex lab and in some of the others. “We could adjust them to have a bench to work on with you and another person, or connect them for a group of five to work on. We could even push them all together in a circle to have a discussion over papers we had read.”

An uplifting environment

Among the attributes of the renovated labs universally praised by faculty members and students alike is their decor that features brighter colors, improved lighting—including new windows cut into the Upper Street side of the building—and spaciousness created, in some cases, by turning two former smaller labs into one large one. This is especially important because of the many hours students spend in a lab setting.

“I think just the physical environment of our renovated labs makes a 100 percent difference,” said chemistry professor and program director Eva Csuhai. “The fact that there is sunlight in the room and much more space relaxes the students and makes a four-hour lab session much more comfortable. So now, we never really feel that time.”

Blake McCowan, a senior biology major, could not agree more.

“Just walking into these labs, it’s so much brighter and inviting,” he said. “The spaciousness and the way the equipment and furnishings are set up make it much easier to work with another student. The whole atmosphere makes me want to work harder. It’s also more efficient, since there is plenty of space and equipment, which lets us get more experiments done and make better use of the lab.”

fume hoods
State-of-the-art fume hoods that can easily accommodate two students per hood have helped transform this chemistry lab into a more efficient learning environment.

One of the most visible upgrades in the organic chemistry lab is the installation of 13 high quality fume hoods where once there were six. Two students have plenty of room to work in a hood, each of which has two complete sets of hookups for gas, air, cold water, and vacuum.

“Most of the serious work is done around the fume hoods,” Csuhai said. “Our first learning experience with them was to learn how good they are. They’re great. We have hardly smelled a chemical since they were installed.”

Having enough room to begin an experiment and have it continue undisturbed over many weeks is a primary benefit for Prya Murad, a junior biology and philosophy double major.

“In my Cell and Molecular Biology class, we do an experiment with live cultures, and my group tested the effect of caffeine on the cells,” Murad said. “So you have these Petri dishes that you have to monitor every few days. It’s really nice to know you can do your own thing and not have to worry about intruding on other peoples’ space.”

Csuhai believes the private space for experiments has several advantages.

“I think the students have a greater sense of ownership of their work, because they have their own space that they are responsible for,” she said. “It was also one of the new ideas we had in planning these labs, that upperclass students could run an experiment that would be in view of the younger students, who could learn from it. And that’s working.”

Murad also appreciates the improvement in the overall ambience of the labs because of the long hours many students spend in that environment.

“There are scheduled hours for labs, but for all practical purposes you wind up spending a lot more time in there,” she said. “Experiments don’t just happen on one day—you may fail with them 20 times, and then finally it might work. So you may come in for a few hours on this day, a few hours on that day.”

Elimination of the high dividers running down the length of benches in the old chemistry labs is a vast improvement for Csuhai as she integrates the lecture, discussion, and lab work into a single room.

“Now we can all see each other throughout the classroom, so when I go over to explain something to one pair of students, everyone else can observe it,” she said. “It makes the experience much more interactive. Every lab, I have to demonstrate some assembly or technique. If I hold something up in the middle of the room now, 20 students can see it. Before, only four could. It’s a big advantage.”

From abstract to concrete

When Day teaches his physics classes, he too uses the enlarged lab space as both classroom and lab. This was one of the primary goals of the renovation, to create rooms where abstract instruction and concrete experiments can take place in the same space and time.

“Rather than having a one-hour lecture three times a week in a separate room and then a three-hour lab once a week, we now have two-hour sessions on Monday-Wednesday-Friday or three-hour sessions on Tuesday-Thursday, and I do all my teaching and lab work during those periods, in the same greatly expanded room.” Day said. “We jump from the theory, written on the white board with lots of equations and formulas, directly to doing demonstrations and experiments. So instead of telling them on Monday about conservation of energy and maybe it’s Thursday before they get around to actually seeing it, they see it five minutes later.”

Jamie Day at board

Day can scarcely contain his enthusiasm about one new piece of equipment that the renovation project has made possible, a sophisticated optics table that opens up a whole new world of experimentation for his students. The sturdy 8-by-4-foot table rests on large pneumatic shock absorbers that provide an extremely stable platform to work on.

“Our students are using a Mach-Zender interferometer that they built to detect single photons of light,” Day said. “We’re ultimately going to try to make these photons interfere, which is very complicated quantum mechanics. We’re doing experiments now with a precision we’ve never been able to do in the past. Measuring a universal constant, for example. It’s a tricky experiment, and we used to spend weeks on it and get mediocre results. Now we can spend an afternoon on it and get really good results, just because the system is damped so well.”

Thomas Baker, a senior physics major, is using the optics table in partnership with a classmate to do his senior research project, a quantum eraser experiment that studies specific attributes of light in two cases where you know and don’t know the path to its destination.

“If it weren’t for the optics table, it would be impossible to do this experiment with any precision at all,” Baker said. “When you’re dealing with particle physics, you need that very high degree of exactness. This table is located in the smaller physics lab, which is a very impressive space.”

When his classes meet in the larger physics lab, Baker, too, is a fan of the improved ambience of the room. “It’s very visually appealing, there’s lots of storage space, the chairs are comfortable, and it’s very conducive to doing our experiments. During lectures, the sliding white boards are nice for taking notes. You might work a problem, then need to reference it again, so you just slide the board back to reveal it.”

Taking the long view

Even though she will soon complete her Transylvania education, Murad is enthusiastic about what the labs renovation project is doing for the future of her soon-to-be alma mater.

“I think it will be great for Transy, because we already have a very strong pre-health program and good camaraderie in the science programs overall, and this project will combine up-to-date equipment with the really strong teaching we have. We love these labs.”

And though her graduation is nearly two years away, Hosford also takes a longer view than her own Transy days and feels future students will reap great benefits from the renovation project.

“I spent last summer working in the medical research labs at the University of Kentucky, and our labs now compare very favorably with those at UK,” she said. “It’s wonderful for Transy students to be working in such good labs, since it prepares you better for research in graduate or professional school.”

girl with microscope
The contributions to better learning that the seven renovated laboratories in Brown Science Center are already making to students and faculty members underscore the need to complete fund-raising for renovation of the remaining four labs.

Renovation of lab space in the building, which opened in 1970, was originally targeted as a $7 million project, but is now at $9 million due to rising construction costs and expansion of the scope of work. With $6.5 million already raised, the remaining need is $2.5 million.

“This project is critical for Transylvania because of the University’s excellent track record at preparing students in the sciences for careers in medicine, research, teaching, and industry,” said Mark Blankenship ’81, acting vice president for development. “Modern, state-of-the-art facilities, like those in the labs already renovated, are essential to ensure the future success of the science programs.”

Up-to-date lab facilities benefit the entire student population, since every Transy student must complete a general education requirement for a science course with a lab element to be eligible for the B.A. degree.

For information on donor support, contact the development office at (800) 487-2679.

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