SALT LAKE CITY — As lawmakers grapple with the allocation of precious education funding in the 2013 Legislature, Weber State officials are asking that some of that money go toward a new science lab building at the Ogden university.
“We know our request is a big request, but it also fulfills a big need,” WSU President Chuck Wight told a legislative committee Friday. “We have one building that provides science lab instruction, and when that building falls into disarray, it has a huge, huge impact on our college of science.”
The new building would help boost Utah's economy, Wight said.
“Many of the high-demand, high-wage jobs that are available to our citizens today are in science and technology sectors, where college-level education in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields is essential,” he said.
For lawmakers, the question remains: Are education funds best spent on a physical building, or technology that can be accessed by thousands of students across the state?
"Technology can aid a lot of things in the instructional process," said Brad Mortensen, vice president for university advancement and head of legislative relations at Weber State. "But when it comes to the physical sciences, having an actual lab to do that in will continue to be a demand at universities."
Weber State Dean Dave Matty agrees that virtual learning can't replace interactive instruction.
“It's unlikely that the hands-on learning experiences required by students to master many STEM disciplines will be supplanted by virtual experiences in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Matty previously worked at the National Science Foundation, facilitating research on how undergraduate science students across the country learn best. He asserted that a science building with lab facilities is an investment that provides significant research opportunities for both faculty and students.
“It's difficult to understand the subtleties of a rock, an ecosystem or even a chemical reaction without direct examination and experimentation,” Matty said.
Wight told the Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee that he had charged Matty with thinking carefully about how science is going to be taught in the next 20 to 40 years and designing a building that will address future needs.
The new building will accommodate teaching styles that cater to current and forthcoming technological advances, university officials said.
"We're extrapolating from what we know about how students learn best today," Matty said. "There are a lot of great practices out there right now, and we're interested in using these to enhance student learning and to help us develop our own approaches which integrate emerging technologies with classroom instruction."
Safety, Wight told lawmakers, is another concern. The current science lab building, built in the late 1960s, is more than 40 years old.
“The building is crumbling apart, and everything is old and rustic,” said Rebecca Miller, a teacher's assistant minoring in chemistry at the university. “It's frustrating because we're limited based upon the instruments that we have and the way the lab is set up.
“The roof leaks here,” Miller said, pointing to the ceiling of a lab room in the building. “I have to collect buckets of water when it rains and take them out.”
And the tubing in the organic chemistry lab is cracked.
“Sometimes people pour chemicals outside of that trench and it drains onto our computers, from the sixth floor to the fourth floor,” Miller said. “I run around warning everybody not to touch it. It's not water.”
The Wasatch fault is a parking lot away from the top-heavy, concrete science lab building, Wight said.
“The building would collapse under an earthquake,” he said.
“Should we even be using that building?” Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, asked. “If everything's as bad as you show it there, I have some safety concerns.”
Alan Hall, chairman of the university's board of trustees, pledged $5 million to the project.
“I'm a venture capitalist and entrepreneur,” he said. “And I'm anxious to see that the building be built so we can continue to have students come out with the skills necessary to build Utah's economy.”
Hall told legislators that plans to bring in further donations are under way.
"You are all looking like candidates to me," he laughed.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said the committee has been impressed with community support for the project.
"One thing this committee has looked at (in determining who gets funding) is the level of community support," Froerer said. "The way I judge that is donations. In this case, the community has really put their money where their heart is. It's people like Mr. Hall that make these communities great and make these projects feasible."