A Better Home for Undergraduate Science

Labs and classrooms must be brought up to date to meet the needs of a rejuvenated curriculum.

A renaissance is beginning in undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. New discoveries and emerging technologies are changingthe face of science–and the way that science is learned. In the wake of a series of reports underscoring the inadequacy of existing curricula and recommending new approaches, educators are coming to a deeper understanding of the kinds of programs that stimulate student interest and convey a useful understanding of how science is done. They now face a new challenge: putting new in old spaces.

At the vast majority of colleges and universities across the country, facilities for undergraduate science are inadequate to this challenge. Critical to sustaining the current momentum in curriculum reform are spaces and structures that can accommodate programs designed to attract and sustain student interest in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology (SEMT). If the promise of the renaissance is to be fulfilled, a nationwide renewal of undergraduate science facilities is needed.

This will be a costly and time-consuming endeavor in both time and dollars. National Science Foundation (NSF) data indicate that the 500 largest colleges and universities alone need at least $10 billion to $12 billion to renovate or construct facilities for undergraduate research and classroom instruction. Planning, financing, and constructing or renovating SEMT facilities requires a predictable framework in which institutions can make long-term decisions–a framework that includes financing options that encompass the needs of a variety of institutions. To support the renaissance now under way, we need a national collaborative effort to formulate a comprehensive multiyear agenda focused on the renovation and construction of the spaces and structures in which undergraduates are learning science.

An emerging consensus

Throughout U.S. society there is a deepening awareness that strong undergraduate SEMT education serves the national purpose in many ways–creating a scientifically literate populace, preparing a technologically sophisticated workforce, training the next generation of K-12 teachers, and educating professionals in fields that are crucial to maintaining U.S. preeminence in the world economy. In recent years, groups such as the Council for Undergraduate Research and numerous private foundations have helped to support curriculum reforms in undergraduate SEMT programs. Major reports, such as Science in the Nation’s Interest from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, describe the why and how of strong undergraduate SEMT programs. The National Science Foundation has just conducted a review to develop recommendations for future action by each sector of SEMT education, and the National Academy of Sciences has established a Center for Science Education, within which the Committee on Undergraduate Science Education focuses on scientific literacy.

One catalyst for these efforts was the realization that it is during the early years in college that the largest numbers of students become discouraged and make the decision to abandon further study in science. Faculty in institutions across the country began exploring ways of engaging student interest in the study of science and math early in their careers. Their goal was to enable more students to experience the excitement of doing science, gain an understanding of the scientific way of thinking about their world, and then persist and succeed in science.

A broad consensus has emerged about what works in strong undergraduate programs: Students learn best in a community in which learning is experiential and investigative from introductory courses on up through advanced courses for nonmajors as well as majors. In addition, students are most likely to succeed when what they are learning is personally meaningful to themselves and their teachers, makes connections to other fields of inquiry, and suggests practical applications related to their lives.

Many of these reforms have incorporated assessment measures designed to document their effectiveness. What we know from experience and from available data is that the number of students receiving degrees in science and engineering is increasing and that in particular the number of women and minority studens is growing. In addition, many colleges report that a higher proportion of nonscience majors are continuing to take science courses beyond those required for graduation.

Despite the growing understanding of what works in undergraduate SEMT programs, there remain significant barriers to continued reform. One critical barrier is the design and quality of many undergraduate classroom and laboratory spaces. This is an issue that we have been investigating over the past few years as part of Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), an informal, independent alliance of colleges and universities working toward the goal of strengthening undergraduate science. Since 1992, PKAL has hosted more than 30 meetings on a variety of issues critical to building and sustaining strong undergraduate SEMT programs; 10 of these have been workshops focused on planning new and renovated facilities for undergraduate science. More than 200 colleges and universities have participated in one or more PKAL facilities-planning workshops.

Reports from these institutions make it very clear that inadequate space is a significant barrier to strengthening the SEMT programs on their campuses. They document the unsafe labs, the lack of research space for students and faculty, the intractability of spaces for discovery-based, investigative learning, the lack of building systems to accommodate new technologies, and the inhospitality of spaces for collaborative work–that is, for doing science as scientists do science.

Facilities now being used for undergraduate learning are deficient on several counts. As undergraduate enrollment in science-related courses has risen, buildings have become overcrowded. Many do not meet present-day standards for safety, accessibility, or cost-effectiveness. Chemistry labs lack adequate ventilation or storage and handling facilities for hazardous chemicals. Few labs are configured to meet requirements for accessibility to handicapped students. Classroom and laboratory buildings may not be energy efficient.

Moreover, many facilities are simply deteriorating. Electrical service and heating and air conditioning systems are outdated and often unreliable, creating problems for maintaining delicate instruments. Excessive humidity and leaky roofs damage lab equipment. And many buildings lack the electrical capacity to support the sophisticated computer workstations and networks that have become an integral part of contemporary science.

If we understand that the useable life-span of a research and research-training facilities is about 30 years, one explanation for the current state of facilities becomes clear. A large percentage of the spaces and structures now being used for science-related research, research-training, and instruction on college and university campuses across the country is approximately three decades old, constructed as part of the national effort to improve U.S. science education in response to the shock of Sputnik. But perhaps more important than their age and structural condition, the design of these spaces reflects the science and the practices in science education prevalent at that time.

Sputnik-era facilities, with large lecture halls and relatively cramped laboratories, were designed for passive learning. They reflected the then-current strategy of targeting science education to the “cream of the crop” and screening out the rest. Today, however, undergraduate programs are designed to attract all students, rather than weed them out, and to give them the opportunity to do science the way real scientists do. Such programs need spaces organized differently from those built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Linking program and space

Current facilities do not support (nor were they designed to support) interdisciplinary approaches, sophisticated technologies, or the kinds of collaboration central to modern science. Colleges and universities now need spaces that can support these uses. At Dickinson College, for instance, changes in the way physics is taught spurred the redesign of a physics classroom. Previously, long tables were fixed in a series of rows, like lunch counters, making it hard for students to engage in group discussions or for instructors to squeeze between the rows to check students’ work. Computers on the work tables blocked students’ views of demonstrations, and there was no space for using video cameras to capture motion experiments for later analysis. This design impeded faculty’s efforts to shift from lectures to Socratic-style dialogue and discussions and to incorporate computer and video technology into the classroom.

The revised design included replacing the lunch counter-style tables with T-shaped workstations arranged around the perimeter of the room, making it easy for instructors to circulate, monitor discussions, and check computer screens. Each workstation consists of a hexagonal table for group discussions, comprising the stem of the T, and a long table with a computer on each end, where students can work in pairs. A raceway was installed at the center of the room, with a video camera mounted on the ceiling above it; a removable demonstration table was placed at the front of the room. In addition, the room has been rewired for a faster computer network.

Faculty in a variety of fields are eager to incorporate computers into their classrooms. In chemistry, computers can allow students to visualize molecular structures and simulate chemical interactions. In physics, students can use computers to collect, analyze, and graph data. At Grinnell College, for instance, a new science lecture hall is designed as a series of tiered tables, arranged so that students can work in groups, and wired to allow the use of networked laptop computers during class sessions.

Grinnell is also seeking to promote a research-rich environment by blurring the distinction between teaching and research. To this end, it is reconfiguring laboratory space in its science building to link instructional and research labs. This allows students supervised access to specialized equipment housed in the research labs, while permitting research activity to spill over into the instructional lab space in the summertime.

The placement of laboratories, faculty offices, and social spaces can help foster a sense of community and encourage faculty-student interaction. At Carleton College, faculty offices in the mathematics and computer sciences departments were scattered in several different locations far from the math center; there was no place for informal interaction among students and faculty. In the new center for mathematics and computing, faculty offices are centralized, with lounges and conference rooms nearby. Most important, the center of the building is a two-story, glass-walled drop-in math help room, easily accessible to faculty and students alike.

Making math and science visible and appealing is also an important part of strengthening undergraduate participation. It is hard to attract students to the pursuit of science when research is being done in the bowels of a building far off the beaten path. Many colleges are determined to put science on display. At Boston College, the nuclear magnetic resonance lab in the chemistry building is equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows so that passersby can share the excitement of seeing how real science is done.

Also, the location of science-related buildings and departments can play an important role in fostering interdisciplinary learning. At Colby College, a new walkway between the chemistry and biology buildings houses the biochemistry labs. At the University of Oregon, a new science complex links individual departments with interdisciplinary “institutes” in molecular biology, chemical physics, materials science, theoretical science, and neuroscience. Stairways link shared administrative offices and conference rooms, while a central atrium provides what one administrator calls “an agora for science.”

As a nation we are at another “Sputnik” juncture; the challenge we face is as urgent as that faced by the country in the 1960s. We must make the same collective commitment to strengthening education that was made 30 years ago.

Resources for facilities

Data on federal obligations for science and engineering (S&E) to universities and colleges indicate that the nation’s response to the challenge of Sputnik addressed the physical as well as the human infrastructure. In 1963, total federal expenditures for general research and development (R&D) were $829.5 million; total federal expenditures for R&D plant were $105.9 million.

In 1971, the first time that data were separately identified for instructional facilities, obligations for R&D plant totaled $29.9 million and for instructional facilities $28.7 million; general R&D obligations totaled $1.5 billion and those for fellowships, traineeships, and training grants totaled $421 million. In the years that followed, federal obligations for R&D plant and instructional facilities steadily decreased, in part because the physical infrastructure was still relatively new. The nearly $30 million targeted in 1971 for instructional S&E facilities represented the high-water mark for that purpose for 20 years.

Over the coming decade, most of the nation’s 3,500 colleges and universities will be facing facilities renewal bills averaging at least $5 million.

In 1988, as a result of years of pressure from colleges and universities, Congress passed the Academic Research Facilities Modernization Act. Although legislators’ primary concern was improving facilities at the research-intensive universities, they were aware of equally alarming conditions in liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities. The Act required NSF to design, establish, and maintain a data collection and analysis capability in order to identify and assess universities’ and colleges’ needs for research facilities. Since then, NSF has conducted a biennial survey to document the need for construction and modernization of research laboratories, including fixed equipment and major research equipment, in each major field of science and engineering. It also collects and analyzes data on university expenditures for the construction and modernization of research facilities as well as the sources of funds used. Although the survey is limited by its focus on facilities for externally funded research, it has been of significant value in helping set current policies and programs. NSF’s most recent study of the facilities needs of the approximately 500 institutions that receive at least $50,000 in outside research funding would require an investment of close to $12 billion.

NSF has used the survey data to develop and implement the Academic Research Infrastructure (ARI) program, which provides competitive grants for the renewal of spaces used for research and research-training in science, mathematics, and engineering. The program is intended to address the needs of all types of institutions, based on levels of NSF funding as well as by student populations served. Approximately 515 institutions have applied to the program in the past six years even though the funds available are limited (ranging from a low of $20 million in 1991 to a high of $116.5 million in 1993). Since 1991, when the first ARI awards were made, the program has provided a total of $136.5 million to 317 institutions. The response to the ARI program is one indication of the national scope of the facilities problem. Nonetheless, the program has never been funded at its full authorized level of $250 million a year.

There is important anecdotal evidence as well of the overwhelming need to renew the spaces in which undergraduates learn and do science. At one small liberal-arts college, for example, overall enrollment has remained steady over the past five years, but the proportion of students majoring in science or mathematics has jumped from 23 percent to 33 percent; the college projects that 47 percent of its incoming freshmen will major in math or science. In addition, more nonscience majors are taking upper-level math and science courses. In the past five years, the college has spent $23.5 million on new and renovated spaces, advanced computer workstations, and a campus-wide network, and administrators plan to spend $5 million more. That’s $28.5 million for an institution with an annual operating budget of $46 million. PKAL files include similar reports from many institutions.

Surveys of the more than 200 institutions that have participated in PKAL facilities-planning workshops indicate that the pressure for renovation is widespread and the cost daunting. Among the institutions participating in the PKAL facilities planning workshops, 91 were either far enough along with their planning or had set a budget limit for their project to estimate project cost. Together, they plan to spend a total of nearly $1 billion on new, expanded, or renovated spaces for undergraduate science. Budgets for specific projects range from $320,000 for a renovated space to $58 million for a new science building; major projects average about $12 million. Over the coming decade, most of the nation’s 3,500 colleges and universities will be facing facilities-renewal bills averaging at least $5 million.

Many institutions are only beginning the difficult task of identifying the range of financing options and opportunities available. For private institutions–a science resource that the nation can ill afford to neglect–raising money for science facilities is especially challenging. Fewer than five private national foundations and only a handful of regional foundations support bricks-and-mortar projects. At the same time, most private colleges do not have access to state capital funds. These institutions desperately need to bring together the right package of debt financing, tax incentives, gifts, and grants to implement their facilities plans.

Congress can consolidate the various agency programs through which it funds research related infrastructure.

From the information gathered from institutions participating in the PKAL workshops, it is our conviction that the scope of the problem is larger and more complex than is commonly recognized, both from the perspective of financing issues and from the perspective of what will happen if the problem is not addressed. It is the premise of PKAL that the problems of SEMT education cannot be addressed piecemeal. Instead, they require the perspectives of all those who will participate in the solution–students, teachers, researchers, administrators, design professionals, and representatives of federal and state governments and private foundations. Nowhere is the need for such kaleidoscopic vision more evident than in the need for teaching and research spaces that will truly accommodate the renaissance in SEMT education. These needs must be addressed in a national plan of action.

An agenda for action

The National Research Council (NRC) should begin this process by convening a blue-ribbon committee, including leaders from business and industry, academe, and government, as well as experienced design professionals, to outline and implement a 10-year plan to address SEMT infrastructure needs in the nation’s colleges and universities. The charge to the committee is to recommend a coordinated set of policies, programs, and funding mechanisms for infrastructure renewal, based on a recognition of the spatial requirements for a quality undergraduate SEMT program.

The initial work of the committee should be to gather and disseminate information about the cost of the new construction and remodeling necessary to achieve adequate facilities for research, research-training, and instruction in quality undergraduate SEMT programs. If the momentum of current reforms is not to be lost, we need better data. The NSF survey does not include the many four-year colleges that receive less than $50,000 in external support for research or any of the two-year colleges where 40 percent of college students are enrolled. It focuses on spaces for research and research training, but does not cover the need for better classroom spaces and student labs–even though recent curriculum reforms have focused on the importance of introductory-level classroom instruction. It may be that much of the data needed to establish national policies and programs are already available in various agencies and associations, but the information needs to be assembled and analyzed in order to be useful for planning and action by the larger community.

The committee should also catalogue sources of funding and financing available to institutions. No single funding source, public or private, is expected to provide all the funds needed for an individual project. Instead, the committee must seek to broaden the range of funding and financing opportunities, including low-cost loans, loan guarantees, tax exempt bonds, and tax credits.

There is a great deal that the federal government can do to support this effort. To begin with, Congress can consolidate the various agency programs through which it funds research-related infrastructure. Right now, agencies such as NSF, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health have their own programs. A formal, collaborative interagency set of programs would be more efficient. The ARI program can serve as a template for a larger federal effort, since it is competitively funded and requires grant-seekers to formulate a multiyear plan that extends from fundraising to facilities maintenance and program evaluation

Overall, federal funding should better balance R&D funding with funding for the facilities that will support academic research and training. This year, NSF is spending about $3.5 billion on R&D and only $50 million on research and research-training facilities. A step in the right direction would be to appropriate the full $250 million that has been authorized for the ARI program.

Colleges and universities should develop ways to share expensive instrumentation and facilities.

In addition, Congress should increase the breadth of financing and funding options and opportunities available to institutions of higher education for infrastructure renewal. One option would be to explore tax incentives or other mechanisms, such as preference in grant allocation, to encourage collaboration among academic institutions or between academic institutions and businesses in developing or renovating facilities.

State governments should make a commitment to improving science education spaces and programs in public and private higher education. Both kinds of institutions serve as an important resource for a state’s economic development by educating a highly skilled workforce. They also play an important role in training teachers, particularly for K-12 programs. Improving the quality of elementary and high school education in general, and math and science education in particular, can help to attract business to the region. In many cases it may make more sense to spend state money on modernizing existing buildings on private as well as public campuses than to undertake major new construction projects at public institutions.

Colleges and universities can assess the need for new facilities and technologies across their campuses and determine the funding requirements for meeting them. They will need to reallocate resources away from short-term expenditures in order to ensure long-range funding for renovation or construction and maintenance of critically needed facilities. It is particularly important that they identify ways that emerging technology, particularly communications and computers, will change the nature of teaching and research so that new facilities will not quickly become obsolete.

One way that colleges or universities can ease the financial burden of infrastructure improvements is to develop ways to share expensive instrumentation and facilities. Such arrangements can be made either with other educational or scientific institutions or with private industry. In addition, educational institutions can help one another by sharing information about innovative designs and fundraising strategies.

Business and industry can play a constructive role as well. In addition to contributing to infrastructure projects that serve the mutual interests of industry and society, they can take inventory of their own R&D facilities and explore ways to share research space with academic institutions. They can also press for tax and other incentives to encourage the development of such shared spaces for research and research-training.

Finally, private foundations should broaden their range of support. By far the largest share of private funding is devoted to science programs rather than to the spaces in which those programs are housed. Foundations should recognize that programmatic enhancement is often short-lived or futile unless it is accompanied by appropriate infrastructure renewal. In addition, funders should supplement facilities grants with a variety of other instruments, such as loans and planning grants. Loans can play a particularly important role in ensuring the stable progress of major, long-term projects despite the unpredictable cash flows incurred during lengthy fundraising campaigns. Foundations can also spur universities and colleges to engage in careful, critical, and collaborative planning and can use their leverage to require that their grantees build endowments to maintain their investment in new facilities.

Over the past 20 years, chronic underfunding has led to a considerable backlog of infrastructure projects for institutions of higher education, which must now deal with the problem in an era in which money is tight and public confidence low. To the extent that we as a nation neglect undergraduate education, we lose the service to society of a great pool of talent. To the extent that we challenge today’s undergraduate students to make sense of their world by understanding the scientific process and ways of thinking, we succeed in preparing them for productive careers in a world in which science and technology affect all aspects of life.

Recommended Reading

  • Association of Physical Plant Administrators of Universities and Colleges. The Decaying American Campus: A Ticking Time Bomb.
  • National Science Foundation. Scientific and Engineering Research Facilities at Universities and Colleges, Volumes I and II. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1994.
  • Project Kaleidoscope. A Handbook on Planning Facilities for Natural Science Communities. Washington, D.C.: Project Kaleidoscope, 1995.
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Cite this Article

Narum, Jeanne L. “A Better Home for Undergraduate Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 1 (Fall 1996).

Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall 1996