Union’s new science center opens to students

'You feel a lot cooler'
Union College students Liz Whitney of Cobleskill and Nick Mareno of Seattle in the new Science & Engineering Center Wednesday.
Union College students Liz Whitney of Cobleskill and Nick Mareno of Seattle in the new Science & Engineering Center Wednesday.

The science and engineering students at Union College – long blessed with high-end equipment – are starting to feel a little bit more like scientists.

“You feel a lot cooler, more like a scientist instead of high school students,” said Hayden Paneth, a junior chemistry major, as she and her inorganic chemistry classmates conjured cobalt from its component parts.

On Wednesday, the students worked from their chemistry perch on the third floor of the newly-constructed Ainlay Hall, a curving glass and steel structure sitting at the center of what will become the college’s science and engineering center.

The new laboratory classroom where Paneth and her classmates worked was outfitted with new ventilation hood – controlled digitally – and open design conducive to students working their way through complicated experiments as a professor keeps a close watch.

“The experiments,” Paneth said after highlighting the different safety measures in the lab. “They are kind of volatile.”

Chris Avanessian, a sophomore chemistry major, said he took organic chemistry last year – one of the last students to do so in the old organic chemistry labs.

“I got to see the old and the new,” Avanessian said. He prefers the new.

Crews wrapped up the final pieces of new construction – called Stephen and Judith Ainlay Hall, in honor of the past college president – in time for science students to return to school for class in the new space this fall. As students and professors hit the labs, construction crews are shifting to a complete renovation of the college’s old science and engineering building, which was built in the late-1960s and dedicated in 1971.

The renovation – which will include knocking out walls to create larger, more open classroom and lab spaces – is expected to last through the rest of the school year and next summer, opening to students next fall. The overall project is expected to cost around $100 million.

Biology Professor Scott Kirkton, who has worked on the project since it was the subject of brainstorms and dreams more than five years ago, said the building was designed to put “science on display,” showing off the college’s mass spectrometers, particle accelerators and nuclear magnetic resonance machine.

With classroom labs adjacent to research labs, and large windows lending views into the major research and teaching spaces, the design aims to foster student interest and engagement in the sciences.

“Students can sit in on one of those spaces and see what’s going on in the other space, envisioning a transition from student to student researcher to hopefully a collaborator with faculty,” Kirkton said.

The new space is designed to mirror the types of facilities found at large research universities, where platoons of faculty and graduate students run countless experiments in sprawling labs and research centers. For years, Kirkton said, Union graduates who have gone on to graduate school have said they were thankful for the access to scientific equipment they had at Union but didn’t think the facilities were up to par. And prospective students with an interest in science and engineering – long an emphasis of the liberal arts college – were often left unimpressed by the school’s science center.

“They weren’t wowed, it looked a looked a lot like what high school looked like,” Kirkton said of visiting students.

Now, Union hopes the new home of its science and engineering programs suits its reputation as a liberal arts college with a strong emphasis in the sciences. Anchored by an airy four-story atrium flooded with natural light from above, the new building curves its way between the campus’ classic architecture. Large glass windows let light directly into large open classrooms and labs.

The first floor houses a space designed specifically for the college’s particle accelerator, which for decades lived behind thick concrete walls deep in the old science and engineering building, hidden to all but the physics professors and students who used it.

“It’s a unique instrument and it should be shown off,” said Professor Mike Vineyard, who teaches in the physics department. “It’s something that really sets Union apart.”

The ground floor also includes a vivarium, where faculty and students can conduct animal-based research. The new vivarium includes spaces designed specially for mammal, reptile and insect research. It is also larger than the old vivarium and meets higher research standards, serving as a way to attract future faculty and enable faculty to qualify for grants they couldn’t have with the old facility, Kirkton said.

The second floor is home to electrical and computer engineering labs and classrooms. Chemistry labs are positioned on the third floor. The chemistry spaces in the new building flow directly into the biochemistry spaces in Wold Center. The biology labs sit on the fourth floors. Throughout the building, teacher officers and interspersed with student study spaces.

The renovation of the old building will convert the new-and-old structure into a cohesive space and upgrade the old, small science labs of the 1970s to a modern science center.

“It’s very much isolated,” Kirkton said of an old lab space now being used as walkway from the old part of the building to the new part.

One of the final steps of the building will be connecting the new space to a series of other nearby buildings, like Butterfield and Steinmetz halls. Ultimately, part of the old science and engineering building will be demolished and a new path from the Union football field to the Reamer Campus Center will be constructed and landscaped. The overall project doesn’t add significantly to the overall square-footage of science facilities, Kirkton said, but it provides far more flexibility as teaching trends continue to change in the future.

“We didn’t gain more square footage,” Kirkton said. “But we gained more functional space.”

Professor Laurie Tyler, chair of the chemistry department, said she joined Union’s faculty 15 years ago in part because of the high-quality scientific equipment the college had available for faculty and student research. Now, she said, the college has a science building befitting of its other scientific assets.

“I went to a huge school and different touch instrumentation like this until fourth year,” she said standing in one of the school’s new lab space brimming with equipment, new ventilation systems, long counters and ample storage.

She said the new research and classroom spaces will better enable her to work students in the lab setting. In the old science building, labs were smaller and more divided, complicating a professor’s efforts to oversee students working through different stages of an experiment or lesson.

“Chemists are hands-on scientists, they need to have hands-on training,” Tyler said.

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