More lab spaces a must for expansion

With the addition of two new residential colleges, Science Hill might one day be bustling with undergraduates. So many of them, in fact, that there might not be enough room for them in the nearby science laboratories.

Administrators vow the two colleges proposed to go up on Prospect Street will inject new life into Science Hill, a prospect over which science professors have fawned. But faculty members are beginning to realize that the crowds the new colleges will bring could be as much of a curse as a blessing: If nothing changes between now and when the colleges open, a report released last week concluded, the University’s already-overtaxed teaching laboratories will be pushed beyond the breaking point.

Of course, construction of new science facilities worth hundreds of millions of dollars is planned between now and 2013, when the new colleges would open if approved by the Yale Corporation later this year. But that doesn’t mean some officials are not anxious about what they say could be a very problematic space crunch.

“We cannot go forward without a plan that makes sure that we have additional lab space by the day that those colleges open,” said Joe Gordon, the deputy dean of Yale College and the chairman of a committee that examined the proposed expansion’s effect on the University’s academic resources, in a recent interview.

The committee concluded, among other things, that Yale would need to invest in bolstering its faculty and reassess everything from its use of teaching assistants to its advising system. But even among those daunting tasks, one stood out in particular: the crunch for classroom space around campus, particularly as it pertains to teaching laboratories on Science Hill.

“You can’t add just two more students or five more students into an existing lab,” Gordon said. “It’s not safe, and it’s not appropriate for learning. What you have to do is build new lab space dedicated to undergraduate courses.”

And, most important, that space needs to be available before Yale begins to expand its enrollment, according to a report released Feb. 18 by Gordon’s committee and another that examined the proposed expansion’s effects on student life.

“It is absolutely essential that this space be ready for use before there is any significant increase in the number of Yale College students,” the report read. “This kind of project requires a long lead-time, so it must be a priority in the planning for any expansion of Yale College.”

That much is clear. But exactly how that will be done is still something of an open question.

Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin said the renovations currently ongoing on Science Hill will open up new space for undergraduate laboratories and teaching space, but the renovation schedule depends on how soon the University can begin construction on the new Yale Biology Building, to be located on Whitney Avenue. Construction on the building — which was originally intended to begin in 2006 — is now slated to begin in 2009.

Eventually, faculty will be moved from the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory and Osborn Memorial Laboratory to the Biology Building upon its completion, Girvin said. Those two buildings would then be renovated to accommodate additional laboratories and classrooms for undergraduates, though he said he could not specify the exact increase in teaching space this move would create.

“All of this activity,” Provost Andrew Hamilton said, “should allow us to absorb the effects of an expansion.”

But the need for science teaching and laboratory space is already so great that it presents a pressing problem even without any increase in Yale’s undergraduate enrollment, said Douglas Kankel, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, who is also part of the committee overseeing the Sterling lab renovations. The renovation of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory has been on the drawing board for over a decade but has just now become a priority in the sequence of construction projects on the Hill, Kankel said.

“There was already an awareness that enrollment shifts over the past several years have led to pressure on certain categories of laboratory courses,” William Segraves, the associate dean for science education in Yale College, wrote in an e-mail message. “But if enrollments were to increase by another 10 to 15 percent, these pressures would clearly be exacerbated.”

Currently, caps on laboratory classes reflect faculty and space constraints across the sciences, especially in some of the “overprescribed” lab courses, such as the laboratory in electron microscopy, Kankel said. Interested students must apply to that course a semester in advance, and it still maintains a long waiting list.

The process of expansion, he added, will be “delicate,” since laboratory facilities are often expensive and not “infinitely manipulable.” For instance, the University would need to purchase another electron microscope — no small undertaking — for undergraduate use to absorb a growth in students enrolled in the microscopy course, he said.

But the simple addition of space is not the only issue. Opening up space goes hand in hand with hiring new faculty, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology professor Paul Forscher said.

“It would be an important investment if we want to maintain current faculty to student ratios [in the sciences],” he said.

Hiring science faculty is an expensive task — more expensive than hiring faculty in humanities departments, he added, since their recruitment often involves generating a new laboratory to accommodate their research interests.

The Corporation decided last weekend to proceed with planning for the two new colleges, which would be located behind the Grove Street Cemetery. The expansion — which has been in the works for a decade — would allow the University to boost the enrollment of Yale College by more than 10 percent while also relieving overcrowding in the existing residential colleges.

University administrators are now preparing a preliminary capital and operating budget for the colleges, while Yale fundraisers are in the process of developing a plan for raising money to pay for the expansion. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, is expected to vote on whether to authorize the expansion later this year.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    The Yale Health Plan will be empty by then, use that space.