New UW Science Initiative building moves forward

Aerial shot of the new science building by the anthropology building. UW has planned to include classrooms that promote new techniques of learning. (Photo by Jared Urdiales)

Plans for a new, $100 million science building, featuring an active-learning approach and cutting-edge facilities have taken important steps forward this semester.

The new building is the highlight of the UW Science Initiative, an ongoing project since 2014 to meet a challenge from Gov. Matt Mead and state legislators to dramatically improve the university’s facilities and instruction for education in the sciences.

A key feature is a unique 200-seat classroom designed to engage students in hands-on group projects, as a better alternative to what associate dean of arts and sciences and the director of the UW Science Initiative, Dr. Greg Brown, calls the “sage on the stage” style of lecturing. He referred to studies demonstrating student apathy and low passing rates in traditional lectures while showing that active-learning formats revitalize student attendance and performance.

“It’s so revolutionary and transformational in terms of what it will do on this campus,” Brown said. “Most people I talk to learn better when they actually do things—I know I do.”

Active-learning opportunities exist on campus, but supply is exceeded by demand. Some instructors have left their initially assigned classrooms behind to instead set up camp in the Enzi STEM Facility’s wide-open foyer, equipped with tables useful for group work and plenty of teaching boards. Rachel Watson, director of the Initiative’s active-learning training program for faculty and a lecturer for the department of molecular biology, was quick to take advantage of the area for her general microbiology classes. Even though the foyer is an entrance area with foot traffic, it serves her students better than a traditional lecture hall.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a space to teach that course in an active way,” Watson said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a sign in the foyer that says capacity: 164, my students will fit!’ So I just cart them off over there and we use the whiteboards over there and just take up residence. But we do dream of having a space that was designed for that.”

The new classroom’s layout is made specifically to get students involved and interested with the day’s material on a large scale and will be well-equipped with IT capabilities and Meyer Sound’s state-of-the-art Constellation acoustics system that both isolates and amplifies sound from individual tables, according to the needs of the moment.

“I don’t understand the technology,” Brown said. “But I’ve seen it and it’s amazing.”

The UW Board of Trustees has made the project a top priority to secure funding and ensure its progress. In its first series of meetings in January, the board passed a resolution to move forward with the acquisition of property for the building and finalizing its designs to put those funds to use, UW Board of Trustees President John MacPherson said.

“The Science Initiative will provide a critical recruitment tool for recruiting the best and brightest students to UW’s STEM programs,” MacPherson said. “For the board, it’s the most important legislative funding project for capital construction.”

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