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Coming To Life
“I thought we were early,” whispered one student to another as they entered the Emert Auditorium of USU’s Eccles Science Learning Center on the first day of Biology 1610. “You can see the shock on students’ faces when they walk into class,” says Lisa Berreau, professor and College of Science executive associate dean. “They’re given tours of large, empty classrooms during orientation, but when they see and hear what a full, 400+-student class is like and start looking for a seat, it’s an eye-opener.”

Biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics: all foundational courses required of Utah State’s aspiring scientists, physicians, engineers, science teachers, dentists and more. And all classes taught by USU College of Science faculty.

“We’re carrying a substantial responsibility in providing core courses needed by thousands of Aggie students enrolled in more than 30 majors,” Berreau says. “And we’re out of room.”

Packed classrooms are just the beginning. Science faculty scramble to provide laboratory sections Monday through Friday from early in the morning until 8 p.m. at night. This past year, Saturday sections were added to keep up with demand.

Dean Maura Hagan's Quote

Packed classrooms are just the beginning. Science faculty scramble to provide laboratory sections Monday through Friday from early in the morning until 8 p.m. at night. This past year, Saturday sections were added to keep up with demand.

And that, says USU College of Science Dean Maura Hagan is why the university needs the new Life Sciences Building.

“Utahns are counting on us,” Hagan says. “We’re Utah’s land-grant university and the heart of our mission is to educate our citizens, provide a path to prosperity and strengthen Utah’s quality of life.”

USU’s existing facility, the Biology-Natural Resources (BNR) Building built in 1958, is no longer cutting the muster, she says.

“Our labs are outdated and crowded,” Hagan says. “Our limited capacity threatens student retention and hinders our efforts to meet the needs of a growing student body.”

In Fall 2015, Utah State saw a surge in enrollment with the return of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries following the church’s age change decision in 2012 that sent a larger-than-usual cohort of high school graduates into the mission field.

“That phenomenon caused a temporary influx, but numbers of students going on missions is expected to ‘normalize,’” Hagan says. “Yet make no mistake, our enrollment, overall, is rising and is projected to continue to increase over the next decade.”

Utah’s five-year population growth rate ranks fourth in the nation, according to estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau in May 2015. And most new Utahns aren’t from out-of-state: they’re bundles of joy born each year, earning the Beehive State the nation’s highest birthrate.

Along with increased enrollment needs, Utah’s workplace needs are changing. The Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development estimates 40 percent of the state’s fastest-growing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree with foundational biology courses. Medical sciences and biomedical engineering jobs are projected to grow annually at 5.3 percent and 20.5 percent, respectively, through 2020.

“These jobs include high-paying, community-sustaining careers with our state’s technology leaders,” Hagan says. “These figures put our role in perspective and highlight the urgency of our ability to provide educational opportunities.”

Hagan and her USU colleagues received welcome news in March 2016, with the Utah State Legislature allotting $38 million toward construction of the new Life Sciences Building on the Logan campus. The 103,000-square-foot facility is expected to be constructed next to the BNR on the site of the old Peterson Agriculture Building, which was torn down in 2012.

It’s up to Utah State to raise private funding for the remaining $7 million to complete the new building. Utah State will return to the Legislature in 2017, with a $22 million request for renovation of the antiquated BNR. Private funding for this BNR renovation will total $3 million.

“It’s a formidable task, but the state contribution boosts our resolve,” Hagan says. “And we’re excited about our plans and what the new facility will offer.”

Current plans for the new Life Sciences Building include 13 teaching laboratories, a lecture hall, 11 research labs and a state-of-the-art active learning classroom, along with a café and ample study, lounge and work spaces.

“The modern lab environment calls for generous collaboration space and discovery-based lab instruction,” Hagan says. “Research experiences are critical for our undergraduates, as they prepare for advanced learning and competitive professional schools.”

USU alum Paul Campbell, associate and chairman of Logan, Utah-based Campbell Scientific, says laboratory experience with up-to-date technology is a critical skill his worldwide environmental monitoring business seeks in job candidates.

“Investment in this kind of science education is vital to meeting the human resource needs of our businesses, while assuring our children have meaningful opportunities for employment at a globally competitive scale,” Campbell says.

John Hall, manager of research and development at Utah’s Merit Medical Systems concurs.

“We have great candidates to hire in Utah, but what separates graduates who end up getting hired are those with extensive lab and research experience,” he says. “These are the students the employers seek first.”

-Mary-Ann Muffoletto