SEMO turns focus to science labs

Thursday, February 21, 2008
Chelsea Geimer torched a vial for an experiment in her chemistry 185 lab class Wednesday at Southeast Missouri State University. The class uses the Quantitative Analysis laboratory because the normal freshman lab is currently being renovated. The old labs have poor sight lines and house equipment and chemicals in open areas, while the new labs are much safer for students and staff. (Kit Doyle)

Dr. Sharon Coleman retired, but came back to Southeast Missouri State University this spring to teach a freshman chemistry class. In her 35 years at the university, the science lab she has taught in has remained virtually unchanged.

The bare cement floor, peppered with pits from acid spills, is still the same, as are the corroding benches and equipment that were placed in the lab when it was built in 1959.

"Safety is one of the big issues with regard to space per student as well as hood space," she said.

Slowly, the university is working to replace the antiquated labs. In 2006, the board of regents approved adding $1 each year to the per-credit-hour general fee for the next six years. One lab has already been renovated, another is in the middle of construction, and Monday regents approved spending $800,000 to replace a separate lab during fiscal year 2009. Under the current plan, it will take 10 years for all the labs to be upgraded, said university president Dr. Ken Dobbins.

In August, the university submitted a capital improvement budget request of $37 million to the Missouri Coordinating Board of Higher Education for a new Applied Science Complex. Dr. Chris McGowan, dean of the college of science and mathematics, said the building would support applied research and life sciences, and feature labs with the latest equipment.

Dobbins said he "understands the realities," however, and "knows there's no way we are going to get that large budget." He said the university also submitted a smaller request for $2.5 million to speed up the process of renovating existing labs.

The coordinating board ranks college's projects and makes recommendations to the governor and legislature about budgeting for capital needs. A capital improvement bill has yet to be introduced this session, Dobbins said. Dobbins expects state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, will be a strong backer of Southeast's requests for upgrades.

"The need is there. We hope to make some changes as soon as possible," Dobbins said.

The science labs topped the list of needed facility upgrades during a strategic planning forum for the university Monday. Now that the River Campus is complete, McGowan said the science labs have become the university's biggest capital projects focus.

Up until a year ago, the university did not allow prospective students to tour Rhodes Hall's lab rooms because of their antiquity. Now students are shown an outdated lab and then the new organic chemistry lab, McGowan said, informed about the university's renovations.

In the older lab, three lab benches stand in a line and tall plumbing, gas and electricity hookups stand on each, blocking an instructor's view of the whole class. Storage shelves are open, causing a potential safety hazard, McGowan said. And because there are limited hoods, where students complete chemical processing, students often have to mix their chemicals and then carry them across the room to their benches, Coleman said.

In the new room, there is greater visibility, a chemical-resistant floor, better ventilation, more hoods and closed storage space for chemicals and equipment.

"Things that were OK in the '60s aren't OK now. These projects make the space a lot safer for students," said Dr. Bruce Hathaway.

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