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$26m scientific showplace being readied for dedication

Thursday, July 15, 2004

They call it the "glass beaker," this massive rotunda at the entrance to the new Estelle Siebens Science Center at Buena Vista University, and it is every bit as impressive in smoked glass and steel this afternoon as it was in architectural watercolors on the drawing board when first glimpsed going on two years ago.

It's quiet in here still, but that won't last for long. To be precise, only until August 30. It will be bustling with students digging into the cutting edge of everything from molecular biology to laser technology in innovative interactive classrooms and state-of-the-art laboratories.

And the rush will reach a crescendo September 17, the date for a gala dedication ceremony for this $26 million tribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge, complete with speakers, demonstrations, tours and public events.

But on this summer afternoon, the place is almost as quiet as a cathedral. There are a few hushed voices of faculty members hauling armloads of books into their new quarters, the gentle whir of a workman's electric tools putting finishing touches on a theater-style classroom echoing down "Science Alley," the glassy inner corridor allowing a direct view into the lab workings.

The vast "beaker" makes one feel quite small.

It can also be dizzying, as the head swivels back to see the three-story structure disappear overhead into its forest of virile columns, artistically-angled steel girders, geometric panels and brigades of passive-solar skylights three stories above.

Up the striking staircase, which curves gently around the interior of the beaker, seemingly without any measure of architectural support and clad in etched glass, this contrast of the very old with the very new is emerging in its extreme.

With rolls of blue painter's tape, Dr. Rick Lampe, one of the campus' most enthusiastic science minds, and Jennifer Felton, it's creative design specialist, flesh out a "fossil wall" that the university is building into the otherwise modernistic second story area of the entry plaza - a three-part showcase that will trace much of the physical history of the world with an important collection of fossils, photographs and maps presented, each foot representing 10 million years backward into time, backlit with fiber optic technology. The science department leaders are currently assembling the collection of fossils even as the design goes together.

A web of bright hallways stretch out from here, flanked by glass display cases, one already home to an timeworn abacus next to what appears to be a tiny robot. One can look over the railings into open space, seeing into classrooms and labs through glass panels in their ceilings, and looking down on comfortable little conversation nooks with homelike sift furnishings.

As classrooms go together, their doors are labeled for the moment only with handwritten scrawls to entice curiosity - "biochem," "molecular/ genetics", "animal behavior."

Holes in the walls await interactive video screens, and a sweeping 15-foot series of aquariums for both fresh and salt-water specimens.

Emerging from their packing crates are unusual creatures long preserved in their bottles and a bony menagerie of reassembled animal skeletons. A human anatomy lab will begin accepting cadavers about a year from now.

A tall stairway leads to an observation deck atop the school, and down below, there is a new greenhouse attached to the building which can simulate growing conditions for everything from high desert to rain-forest jungle. The area is surrounded by prairie plantings that students collected last academic year, special lighting that complements the arch-studded structure, and a well-lit flagstone plaza outside the entrance.

The structure includes three research areas, 18 labs and 24 offices. Only a few architectural features remain to be added, and furnishings are quickly being moved into place. The university plans to take final possession from the builders at the end of this month.

One of the final touches will be a plasma screen kiosk to be located in the glass beaker rotunda. BVU Junior Michael Bierman and seniors Any Upah and Tony Pederson developed an interactive building map that will be displayed in the main entrance that will allow visitors to preview the entire building by touching the screen. For instance, if they are looking for a certain professor, they will be able to touch their name on the screen, and instantly be guided to his or her office, while receiving information on the type of scientific research that person is engaged in.

"The philosophy of the new building is to put science on display," says Lampe, a Buena Vista College graduate as well as its professor of biology. "The labs will have glass windows, there will be lots of display areas in the corridors and the new building will be inviting even to non-science people."

At the dedication and beyond, high school age students will get their opportunities to glimpse the facility and its work, with good reason - part of the motivation for the investment is to respond to a serious national shortage of scientists and science educators, according to BVU President Fred Moore.

"Utilizing a building designed for both learning and experiencing science, students will have greater opportunities," BV officials explain in a website report. "Putting science on display and offering summer camps and training for elementary and middle school teachers will expose visiting students to the world of science at a younger age and spark their curiosity and interest."

The September dedication event will feature presentations by a nationally-noted physician from the Mayo Clinic, who will offer a morning lecture intended for science students on campus and those invited from area high schools.

"We want to give the younger students an idea of what science could be for them," said Richard Ridgway, of the University Communications department. "With the dedication and tours, we want to make this is a day dedicated to science, with an exposure not just to the new facility but also to the idea that science is a vital part of every education, and an important part of our lives."

As the dedication nears, so does the outside interest in the new structure, and the excitement level around campus, Ridgway said.

"Everyone here who has been a part of this project is so eager to get the reaction from the visitors, and from the students as they return to the campus this fall. This will also be a great opportunity to recognize the Siebens family and all of the others who have helped to make this possible."

The foundation for the the late Dr. Harold Walter Siebens originally pledged anonymously to donate $13 million - half the cost of the building - if the university could raise the rest of the funds through other donations by September 30, 2002. If the university had failed, it would have lost the entire $13 million gift. In the final accounting, construction and furnishings are estimated at $18 million, with the other $8 million earmarked as an endowment to operate the building into the future.

The old Siebens Science Center building is being retained to provide for other space needs.

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