University of Minnesota's Swenson Science Building Improves Education

Better Design Engages Students in Hands-On Learning
  • Before and After

    Students in the old labs left couldn’t see the blackboard past the shelves on their benches. The new lab right offers unobstructed views for both the students and instructors.

    Photo courtesy of Bilin Paula Tsai, University of Minnesota, Duluth.

  • Classrooms

    The classroom area of the lab is equipped with overhead projection, a white board, and cubbies to keep the students’ belongings out of the walkways.

    Photo courtesy of Bilin Paula Tsai, University of Minnesota, Duluth.

  • Swenson Science Building

    The teaching wing of the James I. Swenson Science Building has a two-story atrium connecting the chemistry teaching labs on the left to the biology teaching labs on the right.

    Photo courtesy of Bilin Paula Tsai, University of Minnesota, Duluth.

The James I. Swenson Science Building (SSB) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, (UMD) demonstrates that physical environment can be as important as curriculum in achieving educational goals. By designing a science building to support curricular goals and engage students and instructors, the departments of chemistry and biology have solved a host of the educational shortcomings that impeded learning in their former buildings.

“We think that the physical features of the new instructional laboratories enhance student learning,” says chemistry professor Bilin Paula Tsai. “The curriculum and the design of the physical space are closely tied together.”

The 99,450-sf, $33-million building is highly utilized by chemistry, biology, and biochemistry majors, as well as students in other sciences, engineering, pre-health, and the liberal arts. The department of chemistry and biochemistry has 18 faculty, 200 majors, 40 bachelor’s degree graduates every year, and 25 graduate students. A major component of its research mission is undergraduate research.

The teaching wing of the SSB contains 16 labs, while the research wing has 18. More than 2,200 students complete general, organic and biochemistry lab courses each year in the new building. The lab program is supported by three full-time staff and student employees; 40 to 45 teaching assistants teach lab sections each semester, including some undergraduate TAs.

The goals of the instructional lab program are multi-faceted: to provide a substantial active, hands-on learning experience; to reinforce through experimentation the theories and principles the students study in lectures; and to develop basic wet chemistry and analytical instrument skills in preparation for subsequent laboratory courses. Instructors also stress the importance of good safety skills and maintaining a proper laboratory notebook, and being able to clearly communicate lab findings, both orally and in writing.

Tsai concedes that many of these goals simply were not adequately met in the 50-year-old lab building that preceded the Swenson Science Building. Students there suffered from minimal pre-lab expectations and post-lab work, and outdated lab design features, which might not be surprising considering the age of the former building.

“We designed new teaching labs based on educational objectives, and we were delighted with how well the SSB supports and furthers our curricular goals,” says Tsai. “The curriculum design and the building design resulted in a creative interaction that went on simultaneously.”

Updating the Labs

Faculty knew from the start that the labs were woefully inadequate in the old chemistry building. One wall was lined with three 50-year-old fume hoods, one of which was dedicated to chemical waste storage; four long benches in the middle of the room ran perpendicular to the fume hoods. The lack of hoods limited the type of experiments the students could conduct. A blackboard hung on a wall at the far end of the room to be used for pre-lab lectures. Students crowded around the blackboard, but few could see past the benches, shelves, and carboys. There was no projector or screen, and no seats.

By contrast, nearly half the space in the new labs is dedicated to classroom activities. Tables and chairs are arranged to face a screen where the instructor can show Powerpoint presentations and answer questions before lab. In addition, students use this space for post-lab analysis and discussion of the experiments. Weekly group discussions are also scheduled in this classroom area.

The wet labs in the old building were not only inefficient, but promoted unsafe conditions. Just as the students could not see the instructor during pre-lab lectures, the instructor could not observe the students during the labs.

“During the experiments in the old lab, there was really no place that the TA could stand and feel comfortable that everyone was on track,” says Tsai. “There was no way to see if all the students were wearing their goggles. Are students taking reagent out of the reagent stock solutions correctly? Does a group look particularly puzzled and need help? The SSB provides an open and unobstructed view of all the lab groups so that students and the TA can interact more directly and frequently, and the instructor can see the students at all times as they work at the hoods and benches.”

In addition, too many students shared too few fume hoods in the old building—there was only 0.67 feet of hood space and three feet of bench space per student—and students had to walk from five to 20 feet from their bench to the hood. The reagents were stored in a common location, meaning students had to walk around the lab carrying them to and from their work bench. Finally, there was little room to store instruments in the lab.

The new labs are equipped with 10 fume hoods—nine to be shared by the 18 students and one staff hood to store waste and reagents—providing two feet of hood space and one foot of bench space per student, allowing for more chemistry-rich experiments.  The student hoods contain their own reagents, so students no longer have to walk around with the chemicals, and their bench is adjacent to the hood.

The proliferation of fume hoods, essential to scientific experimentation, has ramifications for the building’s air handling system.

“This is a big issue,” says Tsai. “Because all the buildings on the UMD campus are connected, proper ventilation and air flow are big challenges and a lot of air goes up the fume hoods.”

To save energy, hood fans are turned down when the lab is not in use.

Another shortcoming of the old labs was a lack of space away from the wet benches for instruments, which, in turn, limited the kinds of experiments students could do. In the new building, four instrument rooms serve 10 teaching labs.

Education by Design

The classroom areas in the new labs allowed the designers to address some major educational deficits, namely inadequate pre-lab preparation by the students, non-uniform pre-lab lectures and lab instruction by TAs, and poor post-lab follow-up for each experiment.

To address inadequate student pre-lab preparation, the faculty developed pre-lab assignments and problems.

“We now assign points to this work, and that’s the accountability or the motivation for the students to complete it,” says Tsai. “The classroom area supports these increased pre-lab expectations and accommodates a higher quality pre-lab instructional experience.”

In addition, the faculty wanted to strengthen the role and performance of the TAs.

“General Chemistry I, for example, enrolls about 500 students in 30 lab sections taught by up to 20 TAs,” says Tsai.  “Their chemistry background, language skills, familiarity with the experiments vary considerably,”

The faculty prepared Powerpoint slides for the TAs to show at the beginning of each experiment; each set includes the lab’s purpose, overview, precautions, and technique demonstrations. These changes would not have been possible without the inclusion of the classroom space, which is equipped with a computer projector, screen, laptop, and whiteboard.

The classroom also allows TAs to hold students accountable for analyzing the results of the lab.

“For many students, the main goal for each lab period was to complete the experiment and leave as early as possible,” says Tsai. “We felt that the student learning cycle was incomplete.”

Now, students are expected to return to the classroom area after completing an experiment to analyze their data, answer post-lab questions, ask the TA for help, and complete a draft of the lab report.

Having prepared for the experiment, listened to the pre-lab lecture, carried out the experiment, students were then expected to complete the analysis and discussion requirements of the lab report. Again the classroom area created an excellent space for this to take place.

End Results

The product of the new laboratory design and resulting new curriculum has been an improved learning environment for students and a better teaching space for TAs. One positive side effect is increased interaction among faculty that started during the planning process for the new building, and continues with the on-going development of uniform pre-lab lectures. Faculty also find that they are more in touch with what TAs are doing in the lab.

In addition, students are taking responsibility for the cleanliness of the fume hoods because each is assigned to a particular hood.

“It seeps into their understanding that cleanliness is a part of lab safety,” says Tsai.

TAs are happy with the new space, though they do see some downsides. Some feel there is less student interaction with the new design, and they feel the experimental work area is more cramped.  However, Tsai feels that these concerns are waning as students and TAs become more comfortable in the new labs.

“Students are more engaged in the laboratory,” says Tsai. “When you set high expectations, students meet them. We are also seeing a higher comfort level in these more open laboratories.  Students know they can go to the TA immediately, and that gives them confidence.”

By Lisa Wesel