Out of room for science, Metro State looks to state bonds

Dayton’s proposed budget includes $32.5 million for new buildings

The science programming at Metropolitan State University has outgrown its facilities, said Dr. John Schneider, a genetics professor.

“We physically don’t have any place to put anything,” he said.

“Two and a half rinky-dink science labs” just don’t cut it for the growing university, Schneider said. “We need more space.”

So Schneider and other professors compiled a plea for help from state legislators, sent out March 18, 2013.

Metro State has the need for more science programming, the pitch states, but lacks the proper facilities.

Schneider said the university has sought out support for new science facilities for nearly nine years.

The school got a nudge in the right direction in 2011 when it received $3.4 million in state bonds for the new facility. That money ensured that land just south of the East Side campus was bought for the building, and it paid for design plans.

Now the university is hoping that state bonds will come through to help actually build the facilities. Gov. Mark Dayton’s state bonding proposal includes a $32.5 million for just that.

Dayton’s bonding bill package proposes a total of $750 million in new construction projects. The state House DFL has a similar plan with a larger $858 million price tag and designates $31 million for the new Metro State science facility. The House bill needs a supermajority in order to pass, which includes getting eight House Republicans to vote for it.

State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said the House DFL is “delighted to include (the science facility) in our bill.”

Hausman, House Capital Investment chairwoman, who wrote the bill, said last week that Republican leaders were indicating they favored deleting everything from the bill besides the Capital Restoration portion.

The bill will go to the Ways and Means committee next Tuesday, and then to the House floor sometime after that, Hausman said.

Training tomorrow’s scientists

Jesse Bethke Gomez, executive director of Metropolitan State University Foundation, said the extra boost from the state would allow the college to serve more students.

“We’re quite excited about that,” he said.

These additional students would help maintain and bolster science jobs in Minnesota, Gomez said. The expansion plan addresses that the sciences are “a significant area of need for employers,” he said. What’s more, he said expanding the university’s science programming is a way of keeping jobs in the state.

The university’s pitch to officials points out that “our state’s great employers need more science trained employees - any glance at the ‘Help Wanted’ advertisements shows that.”

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development projects a 14.6 percent growth rate for the metro area between 2010 and 2020 for jobs in the life, physical and social science sectors.

“(The plan’s) major additions are many-fold,” said Schneider.

Plans include nine student labs, as well as four dedicated research labs for professors and upper-level students. It also includes four general classrooms, two lecture rooms, and 18 offices.

The current plan has a $33.9 million price tag -- both Dayton’s and the House DFL’s bills ask for less.

Associate vice president Dan Hambrock said that if the funding were to come in lower than the estimated cost of the current building plans, the university would have to look at reducing the scope of the project.

However, “(the university) is deeply appreciative” of the House and Gov. Mark Dayton for including the school in their bills, he said.

The labs would provide much-needed hands-on experience, Schneider explains -- experience they simply are not getting enough access to with the current facilities.

And with the program running at capacity, there’s nowhere for them to go without a physical building expansion, he said.

The university has around 600 science students, 170 of which are with declared science majors and another 400 that are pre-majors. With the amount of lab space currently available, students are not getting enough access to labs, he said.

Currently, the school’s two labs are used to service around 30 courses over the course of a year.

These labs only have one fume hood each, which means during a lab, a full class shares the one hood, and students find themselves waiting in line to use the equipment, Schneider said.

Chemistry professor Sarah Dimick Gray said the lack of hoods means she has to structure her classes around a lack of equipment and lab space.

In the current chemistry lab “people are constantly bumping into each other,” she said.

She said getting a new building would give the school a capacity to “make fully functional chemists.” And it would make faculty happy, she states.

“You’re going to see this display of effusive joy if this goes through.”

Patrick Larkin can be reached at eastside@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7816.

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