Modern science facility on way

WMC center promises better technology

March 28, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Western Maryland College's historic, postcard-picture-perfect campus is nothing if not quaint. But when it comes to technology, quaint isn't exactly a plus.

That's why faculty members are so excited about the college's new science center, which will open this fall. The current science building was constructed in 1914, with a second wing added in the 1960s.

"Some labs only have one or two electrical outlets, the plumbing is original, and sometimes the water that comes out is clear and sometimes it isn't," said Brian Wladkowski, an assistant professor of chemistry and former WMC student. "If you stomp too hard on the floor where it's soft you can see the lab on the level below you."

Add to that, Wladkowski said, radiators that overheat the rooms so much that professors sometimes also run the in-window air conditioners in winter to protect the equipment; stockrooms with inadequate ventilation for their stored chemicals; and leaky ceilings over equipment that's worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"The real losers are the students," he said. "Over the years, some have been turned off by these inadequacies and turned to other disciplines and left science behind, and that's a real shame."

Wladkowski, who graduated in 1988 before going on to Stanford University for his doctorate, said he didn't know what a laboratory was supposed to look like when he was an undergraduate, so he wasn't deterred.

"I didn't feel cheated, because of ignorance," he said. "What the faculty have done to compensate is figure out ways to get around those problems and to get students involved and excited about science despite the drawbacks."

The new 50,000-square-foot building was custom-designed. The list of improvements includes climate control, better ventilation, more electrical outlets, Internet hookups, a room designed for small animals and fish that are used in experiments, and more space for high-tech equipment -- some of which is now housed in a laboratory that once was a broom closet.

All the frills don't come cheaply. The facility will cost $13.4 million, and the college is looking for donors to help foot the bill. The state kicked in $3.5 million, said college spokesman Donald W. Schumaker Jr., and citizens and foundations donated $6.4 million.

$3.5 million needed

That leaves administrators $3.5 million short -- about the same price a donor would need to pay to have the building carry his or her name, Schumaker said. For a little less -- say, $1 million -- you can have one level of the building graced with your name.

"Buildings are the toughest things to raise money for," he said, "unless it's named after you."

One of the most important changes the new building will bring is the way the labs will be laid out, said Richard Smith, a professor of organic chemistry. The older style of teaching involved a lecture course on a subject one semester, then a lab course on the same topic in another semester. Newer methods combine the two.

The new laboratories are designed to be more convenient for students, and safer, he said. "The instructors can see all the students and talk to all the students working in the lab. Here [in the old building] there are all sorts of things in the way, and it's difficult to talk while actually working in the lab."

`Great sense of community'

Though Smith, who has taught at the college for 28 years, said he works under "very primitive conditions," he's never been tempted to go elsewhere.

"Not for a minute -- Western Maryland's too good of a place to leave just because of a lousy building," he said. "We have a fantastic administration, great students, wonderful faculty, and there's a great sense of community. I wouldn't have stayed 28 years if I didn't think that was true."

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