When Sputnik hurtled into orbit in 1957, American colleges took note.

Fear that the Soviet Union would win the space race prompted a flurry of construction at U.S. schools not necessarily known for their science programs. Working with millions of dollars in federal aid, they put up new science buildings over the following decade.

But, now, those structures seem as antiquated as that first artificial satellite. The result: another spurt of construction as small, liberal arts colleges put up sleek, new science centers.

"They all went up like mushrooms at more or less the same time, and they are all, quite frankly, falling apart at about the same time," said Jim Gentile, dean of natural sciences at Hope College in Holland, Mich., where $36 million is being spent to renovate a 75,000-square-foot science building and to add a 96,000-square-foot building next door.

At Oberlin College in northeast Ohio, a new $65 million science complex has gone up to replace a cramped, 40-year-old building. "If you are going to stay active and continue to be a leader in the sciences, it's very facility-driven," said Oberlin President Nancy Dye.

A handful of other Ohio schools -- including John Carroll University, Kenyon College and Wittenberg University -- either are constructing new science facilities or have recently completed them.

"It's going on everywhere," said Jeanne Narum, director of Project Kaleidoscope, a Washington-based advocacy group for science education funded by the National Science Foundation. "As the importance of science in society is growing, colleges are reevaluating, rethinking, dreaming about science on their campuses in a new way."

The Sputnik-era buildings are incompatible with new technologies and teaching styles, Narum said.

"Science education has changed so much in the past 30 years," said Fred Moore, president of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, which is building a $26 million science center on the campus of 1,300 students.

Older buildings were designed for professors to lecture in front of a class and for students working alone to carry out limited experiments.

The modern buildings are being designed for interactive teaching methods, cooperation between students and faculty, and collaboration across scientific disciplines.

"We are building spaces where faculty and students can collaborate on research projects," Moore said. "And we are putting science on display, with open work spaces so that people walking through the facility who may not be intending to major in science will be able to see it going on and be attracted to it."

Tim Lewis, chairman of the Wittenberg biology department, said constructing the buildings for the new teaching concept in science is much like creating studio space for artists.

"The building is built to be user-friendly for doing science, which means that it promotes collaboration between different areas of science and is a comfortable place to be," Lewis said. It promotes science "as a hands-on experience."

The advocates of these projects speak of eliminating laboratories full of toxic chemicals and dark hallways that reek of formaldehyde. Designed by architecture firms that specialize in science facilities, the new centers have sofas, lounges, sunny reading areas and coffee carts, inviting scientists to interact with each other and nonscientists to drop in.

Daniel Huri, an Oberlin senior from Cincinnati, sat in his high-tech laboratory space, bent over a dish of cells from chicken embryos.

"I spend all of my time in this building," he said. "I eat, drink and sleep here."

Unlike the old buildings, the new construction at private colleges is almost exclusively funded by private donations.

"There are almost no federal dollars available for new facilities," said Jon Fuller, senior fellow at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Most of the financing for the new buildings come from fundraising campaigns that the colleges began a decade ago.

Many administrators acknowledge that part of the reason for building such costly projects is competition.

"We believe that to be a first-rate institution and to provide first-class service -- and, therefore, by implication to attract students -- you have to have first-rate science," said John Moore, president of Drury University in Springfield, Mo., which dedicated a $19 million science center on Oct. 25.

Assistant professor Matt Elrod, left, monitors the work of student Jason Criscione in a laboratory at Oberlin College's new $65 million science facility in Oberlin, Ohio.Oberlin College's up-to-date science center was completed recently, mostly with private funding. It replaced a cramped, 40-year-old building from the Sputnik era.