Chem lab gets $1.6M upgrade

Apr 4th, 2011 | By | Category: Campus News, March 31

Two dozen undergrads strain to hear their chemistry 109 lab instructor, Xiwei “Emmi” Zheng, explain the day’s experiment. Zheng isn’t tall, and she has to yell above the din of the lab’s air-handling system. She’s written instructions on a white board that leans against a wall at her eye level, but fixed lab equipment means few can actually see the board. After her initial explanation, she darts from student to student to demonstrate a technique. She has no place to put her various props and materials, so she carries them.

Zheng’s challenges as an instructor are mirrored by her students’ challenges. Lined up shoulder-to-shoulder at individual benches, they jostle to find space to work as teams. They have piled their backpacks in an adjacent room, and soon, students are trotting back and forth to retrieve pens, paper and other items. In other labs, students dump their bags on the floor next to their benches, creating potential trip-and-fall scenarios that could be particularly hazardous if one is holding chemicals. And chemical residue can drip on bags, damaging them or students’ clothing later. The lab design limits the number of classes that can be convened each week to six or seven, meaning that much of the week, the lab is empty even as demand for the room skyrockets.

Almost one-third of all UNL students end up in Chemistry 109 labs during their college careers, 80 percent of them as entering freshmen — that’s about 1,700 students per year. These labs were state of the art when Hamilton Hall opened in 1970; today, they are dreary, substandard, inefficient barriers to teaching and learning. Some students report their high school chemistry labs were more modern; chemistry faculty don’t even show these labs to potential students.

But that will change as UNL is spending about $1.6 million to renovate four of these labs. Demolition started during spring break, with the renovations will be completed for the spring 2012 semester.

Chemistry is a foundational course for many disciplines, said Mark Griep, an associate professor of chemistry who heads the department’s academic affairs. Enrollments have grown 25 percent over the past five years. That growth has only exacerbated the labs’ state of “decrepitude and inefficiency,” Griep said.

He and others from the department visited other chemistry departments to learn best practices in lab design, and they implemented their own ideas.

The new labs will change how the department teaches chemistry, and add flexibility to scheduling. Long-term, one goal is to reduce the number of rooms dedicated to undergraduate labs, currently 27, to 17 but use each lab up to 12 times per week. The space reclaimed by more efficient lab use can be used for other research operations, said Jim Takacs, department chair.

The biggest changes for the new labs will be reconfiguration of bench space from lines where students stand shoulder-to-shoulder to “islands” where students will face each other for group work. New ways to share and store equipment will make it easier to set up and clean up. Adding access for computers to each workstation, plus flat-screen monitors, cameras and microphones will allow students to easily see and hear instructors. The labs will be made more ADA-friendly. Hallways will include conversation nooks.

Eric Malina, an associate professor of practice, is developing a new curriculum for the undergraduate labs. He said current teaching trends focus on collaboration. The new lab experiments he is developing and the new “island” lab benches will be integrated to encourage that.

To refurbish all the labs will take another $5 million. The university is using internal allocations for this upgrade, but will be seeking donations to complete the project.

Takacs is optimistic because the project is important.

“Right now, this is third-world class space and that’s just not right,” he said. “It really sends the wrong message to students that they are not important but just the opposite is true. Most of this building is world-class. Now it’s time to bring these labs up to the 2011 standards.”

– Kim Hachiya, University Communications

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