Recruit & Retain (Eastern Kentucky University)

Do Buildings Matter?

Do structures and space matter in the academic setting? Or perhaps the question should be: Do thousands of hours of interaction between faculty and architects matter in academic outcomes?

A case study at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY, says that they matter greatly! Starting back in 2005, the planning for New Science Building (NSB) began in earnest. A senior faculty member, Dr. Malcolm Frisbie, professor of Biology, was appointed faculty shepherd for the project. Dr. Frisbie organized numerous design meetings with the building’s principal designer, Omni Architects of Lexington. Thousands of emails were exchanged, each with the focus on improving student learning in the sciences.

Different perspectives were brought to the table. Physics faculty wanted their space to reflect a completely new learning paradigm, that of collaborative learning. No more long black lab benches for them! In their new space in NSB Phase I, opened in January 2012, their lower-level physics classrooms feature large, round tables seating eight students. Moving away from the traditional lecture/lab format, students are introduced to collaborative learning in teams of eight guided by two team-teaching faculty. Questions are posed; answers are researched and written up. Physics comes alive in learning by discovery. Majors in the department have grown to about 80 students, up 30 percent in the two years since the Physics Department moved into their new space.

Phase I also houses the Department of Chemistry spread across two floors of offices, research labs, teaching labs, classrooms and a very important peer mentoring center staffed with advanced chemistry students. Labs and classrooms have something missing from the old building: windows! Natural light is available, but can be regulated as pedagogy dictates. The forensic science program housed in the Chemistry Department even has a mock courtroom for aspiring CSI types to work on their testimony in front of not only forensics faculty, but legal experts as well. Forensics students learn everything from collecting evidence to processing it and testifying to its significance — the complete package!

Reaping the Rewards of Research

Do buildings matter? Enrollment in chemistry-based programs in terms of credit hours is up 50 percent since the building opened in January 2012. A recent chemistry job fair organized by the university’s Placement Center had three large employers in our area state they would have 750 new job openings for chemistry majors becoming available in the next five years. That certainly created some buzz among our students! Both the Department of Physics and the Department of Chemistry have successfully argued for and received new faculty lines to accommodate their growth in a difficult budgetary environment experienced all over the country in higher education.

The building design also focused on building student community among our science majors with spaces designed for study groups, tutoring and a small fast food restaurant run by our campus food provider, Aramark. We have been very pleased with the outcomes as students spend a lot of time between classes in the building taking advantage of all the space designed for them to interact in informal settings.

A steady flow of school children comes to visit us and spend a day experiencing what our labs and facilities can offer as our faculty give generously of their time for demonstrations and lab exercises in our “college for a day” program. We are very gratified that science teachers from central and eastern Kentucky are bringing their students to see what college life is like for STEM students and the opportunities that await them. Our summer STEM academy fills to capacity with middle and high school students who come to explore the discoveries that can be unlocked with scientific analysis and study.

Future Growth

Do buildings matter? Watch the space to the north of New Science Building Phase I as construction starts in November 2014 on the $68-million addition known as “Phase II.” When completed for Fall 2017 classes, it will house the Departments of Biological Sciences and Geography/Geology. Excitement is building across these programs as the faculty and architects have finished the drawings for Phase II and after a very successful bid opening in October. Phase II will continue the hands-on, wet lab experience in biology courses as well as accommodate the growing amount of fieldwork faculty in both departments are bringing to their curriculums. Even the outdoor space around the building was designed as a living ecological lab by directing the storm runoff through a series of pools, waterfalls and bogs that allow the runoff to soak in rather than enter the city’s storm drains.

The two phases, joined at a common lobby area constructed in Phase I, will provide over seven acres of science research and learning space in one building. STEM education will take a significant leap once Phase II is completed and all four departments are once again under one roof.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Dr. John Wade serves as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Eastern Kentucky University (www.eku.edu).

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