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UW to Take Major Step Forward with Enzi STEM Facility Opening

January 7, 2016
man removing a box from another box beside shelves
Travis Laurance, UW lab coordinator for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been in charge of the department’s move to the new Enzi STEM Facility. The building will open for freshman- and sophomore-level science and math classes when the spring semester starts Jan. 25. (UW Photo)

When the Michael B. Enzi STEM Facility opens its brand-new laboratories and large classrooms to University of Wyoming students Jan. 25, it will change the dynamics of campus, says one UW academic.

“It will be a hopping place. The center of mass at UW is changing,” says Bryan Shader, UW’s special assistant to the vice president for research and economic development, and a mathematics professor. “Between classes, about one-ninth of the student body will be located north of Lewis Street. We have just changed the dynamics of campus.”

The three-story, 107,000-square foot facility -- located on the northwest corner of campus -- will be home to most freshman- and sophomore-level science lab courses. The building is set to be open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, and is expected to be busy the entire time.

“This means virtually every student who comes to UW will take, over their careers at UW, two to three courses that meet over there,” Shader says. “The building, when it is occupied, will see 900 students at a time in there for labs.”

The facility -- which includes more than 30 labs (including computational science and mathematics labs), small active-learning classrooms and storage and set-up space for lab equipment -- houses physics on the first floor; life sciences on the second; and chemistry on the third. Each floor is color-coded, Shader says, with the first floor doused in purple to represent the Milky Way; the second green to depict plants; and the third with orange hues to represent flames.

The facility will provide science majors with learning opportunities and experiences that will propel them in their scientific careers; expose all UW students to the significance of science; provide opportunities to celebrate science with the public; and serve as a key component of UW’s Science Initiative, Shader says.

Faculty Excited About Possibilities

man carrying a cardboard box
Jordan Turner, a lab assistant for the Department of Physics and Astronomy and a December UW graduate, helps move lab equipment into the new Enzi STEM Facility shortly before the holiday break. (UW Photo)

Faculty members, who have slowly been moving over lab equipment since late in the fall semester and over the holiday break, are excited about teaching possibilities in the new building.

“The new facility will let us teach more of our classes in an active-learning environment that we call ‘Studio Physics,’” says Chip Kobulnicky, a UW professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Room 195 seats 56 students around movable tables with four students at each station. The traditional elements of introductory science classes -- that we call lecture/lab/discussion -- now all take place at the same time and in the same room.”

While Kobulnicky won’t teach in the new facility until next fall, he says the advantages of this are many: A professor oversees the entire course; students have three instead of five class sessions per week; and he has found that attendance averages more than 90 percent, compared to 65-70 percent in the traditional large-lecture room format.

“Students appear to like this format better on evaluations,” he says. “Our campus is making a push to teach more classes in this format, especially for introductory sciences. That's a major thrust of the Science Initiative.”

Danny Dale, head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, agrees.

“The beauty of teaching in the ‘studio style’ is that you can continuously modify your approach based on what's best for the students,” says Dale, who, along with lab coordinator Travis Laurance, designed Studio Physics space for the department. “One day, we may have them experimentally explore a topic -- such as the coefficient of kinetic friction -- before we talk about the theoretical background. On another day, we might do some formal introduction and let them loose to explore the topic with the equipment available.”

Like Kobulnicky, Dale says active learning has been shown to strongly improve both student learning and attendance. 

“I think the Enzi facility, with its greatly improved science teaching lab facilities, also will spark more enthusiasm in our students for fully participating in lab and, thus, hopefully learn more,” Dale says.

In addition to helping UW students majoring in the sciences, Shader says the studio-style classrooms will greatly assist students who will eventually teach math and science to elementary, middle school and high school students.

“It (classroom) has all of the teaching manipulatives they will be using when they teach,” he says. “Students will be learning the science and math, and learn how to actively engage students to understand these topics.”

“The Enzi STEM building is an amazing facility. Some of the big improvements for chemistry students include much better lighting in the labs (windows), as well as improved ventilation,” says Carla Beckett, an associate lecturer/lab coordinator in the Department of Chemistry. “There also is excellent technology in each lab for the teaching assistants to present pre-lab materials.”

Beckett says the new fume hoods and ventilation systems are much quieter than the old building, which will allow students to hear their teaching assistants much better. Additionally, students each will have their own individual lab drawers to store their glassware, goggles and other lab equipment. Shortly before the winter break, Beckett says student lab drawers (all 1,152 of them) were stocked with glassware along with the common lab equipment used in the teaching labs.     

overhead view of atrium area of building with multicolor chairs and seating areas
The new Enzi STEM Facility includes three color-coded floors to distinguish different departments and an atrium where students and faculty can gather to discuss science. (UW Photo)

Major Improvements

In the past, it was common for many high school and community college students who came to UW to remark that they had studied in better lab and science facilities than what was offered at UW in the Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences buildings. They won’t be able to say that any more, Shader says.

“Our science lab facilities for undergraduates are now state-of-the-art,” he says.

“I think that the best thing about the new building is that it is so bright and beautiful that students will want to take chemistry and other science courses,” Beckett says. “The ability to see easily into the labs and classrooms allows students to see what other students are doing and, perhaps, make them want to take other courses.”

Shader agrees, describing the labs with no windows in the Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences buildings as “dark and dank.”

The new facility includes a large atrium, with furniture sprinkled throughout the three floors for students to study, or for faculty and students to discuss science. Shader described this as “collision space.”

“These are deliberately designed spaces where faculty from different disciplines can run into each other; where students from different majors mix,” he says.

Enzi’s Educational Contributions Recognized

Naming the building after longtime U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi was proposed by former Gov. David Freudenthal, who saw an opportunity to honor Enzi’s contribution to education and propel the state forward in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM), says Chris Boswell, UW’s vice president for governmental and community affairs. Enzi is credited with securing Abandoned Mine Lands funds to construct the $50 million building.

A dedication of the building is scheduled March 29, with Gov. Matt Mead and Enzi among those expected to attend.

“He has been very influential in crafting legislation that garners bipartisan support in the Senate. These have been bills that moved significant education initiatives forward,” Boswell says. “Whether as chairman or as ranking member, Sen. Enzi knows how to move bills through to become law, and Wyoming and the country are the better for it.”

Previously, Enzi served as chair and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“Sen. Enzi has been a strong supporter of education at UW, the state’s public schools and community colleges,” Shader adds. “This building will provide opportunities for students to be ready for a STEM-centric economy.”

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