Science for the Half-Century to Come

In chemical reactions, it takes a certain amount of energy to get things started. For a pair of compatible molecules to bond, they must collide in the right orientation and with sufficient speed to surmount the energetic hill – activation energy, in chemistry parlance – that stands in the way of their conversion into something new.

Put simply, transformation takes effort. St. Norbert science faculty and administrators can testify to that. As ground is broken this spring for the construction of the Gehl-Mulva Science Center, they see unleashed the 15 years of energy they’ve invested in envisioning the transformation of John R. Minahan Science Hall into a state-of-the-art research and learning facility – a facility for the next five decades.

They’ve brought the necessary elements together, gathered speed and are now near the peak of their own energetic hill, ready for the exciting ride down the other side. This is the story of how they got there, and the discoveries they made along the way.

Dreaming up the future
In the late 1990s, Larry Scheich (Chemistry), Tim Flood (Geology) and their colleagues in the sciences began dreaming of a new science building. Really, though, what they were dreaming of was a new way of teaching.

Scheich, now associate dean of natural sciences, says: “When [JMS] was built in the ’60s, the mode of instruction was, students sat in big lectures and they listened to people basically talk to them about science. Then sometime later in the week they go to a laboratory, which appears to be completely separate from the lecture, and do some activities. And the laboratory’s all individual. Everyone works on their own.

“That’s not the style of education anymore. The building was designed for an educational model that is no longer the most functional model.”

The faculty knew that optimizing science education at St. Norbert called for change. Knowing what that change would look like required exploration, which officially began in January 2000 when Scheich and Flood attended a Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) conference.

PKAL, an arm of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, advocates for strong undergraduate programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The organization networks faculty members, administrators and other experts in STEM education to advance best practices at institutions of higher learning. In particular, PKAL connects institutions looking to build science facilities with those that have recently done so. Through their agency St. Norbert was able to tap into the experiences of institutions like St. Olaf, Albion, Lawrence, Beloit and Agnes Scott for valuable insights on various aspects of the project.

It was through PKAL that the college connected with architect Richard Heinz, a principal at San Diego-based lab design consultancy RFD and a PKAL consultant. Eventually Heinz and others from PKAL made their way to campus to partner with the college in reviewing its current science facilities.

That process began in 2004, says Scheich, with its focus squarely on the student. “Really, the starting point isn’t facility needs but programmatic needs. The first discussion over the first three or four years is figuring out, how do we want to interact with our students? How do we want to teach our students? Then the design of the building comes after that. You build the facility around those needs instead of simply saying, ‘We want a building that’s new and bigger.’”

As a scientist himself, academic dean Jeff Frick knows that research is best pursued not as an individual, but as a team. “No one person can do absolutely everything to get to the point of a scientific publication,” he says.

Likewise, getting to the point of a transformed science facility requires the insight of many. The collective and iterative input of science faculty and administrators over the course of nine years reflected some broad trends in science education.

Seamless, hands-on learning
Ask Erik Brekke (Physics) if he’s taught in a lecture pit lately, and he’ll likely tell you no. He prefers a space that accommodates student activity, interaction and teamwork. “We’ve seen a lot of evidence that the students learn best when they’re able to do the process themselves, rather than watching someone else do the process,” Brekke says.

The teaching laboratories planned for the new Gehl-Mulva Science Center respond to that need. With flat rather than tiered floors, moveable furniture that maximizes flexibility, whiteboards on almost every wall and built-in audiovisual capabilities, Heinz says, “the laboratories often can serve in a classroom mode as well, or at least integrate lab and lecture components into the same room.”

That excites Rebecca McKean ’04 (Geology), who says that growing global interest in natural resources and climate change has swelled the ranks of students in her academic program. “Our labs will be set up in a way to promote learning. We will have more space to lay out maps; room for a stream table, which would be used to illustrate stream movement and flooding; space to move around the room for demonstrations; and a designated place for our research students to work on their projects.”

Collaborative research
Frick has seen firsthand how engaging students as scholars can spark their interest in the sciences. “I like to talk about undergraduate research as giving students an opportunity to blossom,” he says.

Scheich agrees. “There are some students who just don’t get as motivated to reach their full potential until they get actively involved and feel like they have a stake in something. For some students, it sort of turns a switch for them to be able to go into a laboratory and feel like they’re working independently, working on something that they see there’s an outcome to.”

By making more space for students in research labs, the new 150,000-square-foot center will help undergraduates envision a future for themselves in the sciences – even give them the chance to be science ambassadors. McKean will collaborate with students in a lab designed to accommodate the large marine reptile fossils on which her research centers. “The room will be on the ground floor of the building and will have a glass viewing window for students and visitors to look in and see the fossils, and perhaps see myself or my students working,” she says.

Interdisciplinary study
In the past, science education meant learning facts, and maintaining clear boundaries between subjects of study. Now that the focus is on learning how to uncover facts, disciplinary boundaries have become more porous for students and professors alike.

“The lines of distinction between the scientific disciplines – chemistry, biology, physics, math to some extent – are really beginning to blur,” Frick says. “What you’ll find is, people work at the interface of at least two and maybe more than two areas.”

For example, as Brekke teaches undergraduates who aspire to careers in medicine, he discusses physics applications in laparoscopic surgery and radiation treatments. “You don’t particularly care if you call it physics or biology, as long as it helps someone get better,” he says.

The transformation of JMS addresses the fluidity between disciplines by shaking up the traditional model of the departmental floor, easing collaboration among scholars from biochemists to psychologists. “It’s designed more in terms of where are the logical connections between these pieces, all of which are science,” Scheich says.

Of course, physical changes to the existing building, however radical, can only carry St. Norbert students into the next 50 years of science education if they’re paired with pedagogical changes that put them to effective use. “That’s something the building can’t do on its own,” Scheich says. “That’s something the faculty must take on as well.”

For their part, they seem anxious to do it. “I’m very excited for the teaching spaces,” Brekke says. “It’s going to flow really well and make the whole learning process seem more seamless for the student.” 

March 27, 2013