The distinctive new building stands at the heart of Bowie State University’s campus. So a student can spot it when coming from the administrative center, or a nearby road, or just across the courtyard.
“It’s inviting,” university architect John Hammond said. “It embraces you right away. There’s something about this building that you want to come into it to see what it is saying to you.”
Hammond was talking about the Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing, a brand-new $102 million building at Bowie State scheduled to formally open Friday. It is the latest in a wave of somewhat similar projects, geared toward science and related fields, in the Washington region as colleges seek to ensure they have the latest in technology and classroom facilities.
In 2016, Howard University opened a new $70 million laboratory building and Trinity Washington University opened a $38 million classroom and lab center. In 2015, a new science and engineering hall opened at George Washington University. Now, it is Bowie State’s turn.
“Our business is teaching and learning, and the building is the place, the physical place where students who are studying science, and math, and nursing, where they get together and where learning takes place,” Bowie State President Mickey Burnim said. “Learning both in the classroom but also in the laboratories. So to teach science in the 21st century, you need a 21st-century facility.”
The 149,000-square-foot center is filled with sunlight and bright colors and state-of-art touches, such as the dynamic glass that automatically tints. It houses classrooms designed to help students learn from each other and learn together. The center — open, transparent and accessible — represents not only a commitment to those pursuing degrees in science and related fields, but also to a more collaborative way of learning.
Burnim, who is retiring this month, began to consider the need for a new science building in 2006, when his tenure began. The existing science building was old and outdated, and couldn’t be effectively renovated.
“We were in a position, quite honestly, where if we were recruiting students who indicated they wanted to study and major in one of the science disciplines or mathematics, we’d try to recruit them without showing them the science building,” he said.
Plus, Burnim said that he had noticed a larger push for innovation nationwide.
“And the heart of innovation in our world today is characterized by science,” Burnim said. “That’s why we have heard people refer to the Information Age, and the importance of STEM discipline — science, technology, engineering and math. And all of that was tied to innovation.”
The University System of Maryland Board of Regents and the state government backed the project.
“It was not a hard sell to say because this is so important to our nation, to our state, and to the education of students, we need a building that will enhance our ability to teach in the STEM disciplines,” Burnim said of his pitch to the Board of Regents. “That was easy for them to understand. It was consistent with their own priorities, and the priorities of the state.”
Bowie State, with about 5,600 students, is located in Prince George’s County about 12 miles from the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park. This new science building, and the promise it offers, is a milestone for a university that doesn’t always get much attention. The historically black school, founded in 1865, offers degrees in business, nursing, criminal justice and other fields.
“Our firm does work for hundreds of universities all over the country and around the world,” said project architect Paul Harney, whose firm, Perkins+Will, was involved in the effort. “I have to say that this university has been more willing to push the boundaries of a transformative educational setting than, I would say, the vast majority of other universities that we work with.”
The new building, funded by state general revenue bonds, was constructed over a two-year period. The result is a space that touts sustainability features, a level of connectivity between departments and new technology.
That technology is easy to spot in the area for nursing students, where simulation rooms can help students practice. These rooms are set up like a hospital or clinic, beeping monitor and all. There’s a high-tech mannequin in a hospital bed, cameras to capture students’ actions and a two-way mirror so instructors can watch from a control room.
“The intent is that we will be able to mimic, to a very authentic level, those expected experiences that students must confront as graduates or as new RNs,” said Rena Boss-Victoria, nursing department chair. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
There’s also a greenhouse, constructed in a location that makes it easier to spot. Harney said greenhouses are typically placed on the roofs of academic lab buildings. But at Bowie State, faculty were “very determined” to make the greenhouse part of the interior building experience.
“So we made the more difficult architectural and engineering solution of putting the greenhouse on the third floor and having to be kind of clever about how we made it all work,” Harney said. “But the result is that the greenhouse becomes really, a primary science-on-display opportunity.”
So much of the Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing is on display. Classrooms have glass walls, so that students passing through the sun-filled atrium or other parts of the building can spot what’s happening or imagine what is possible. Some, too, set up with workspaces in clusters or pods, for active learning.
Active learning means that instead of a student simply following a presentation, or listening to a professor’s lecture, he or she is more engaged in the information, said Kari Debbink, an incoming assistant professor of microbiology at Bowie State.
“It just kind of goes to show that they’re thinking about student learning in the most current ways,” said Debbink. When she went through the new building, Debbink said she told her department chair that she wanted a classroom that was set up with the pods.
Alandra Brown-Cox, 22, a biology major, recalled speaking with a university official about the building when she was considering attending Bowie State. At the time, Brown-Cox saw it as a real selling point.
“When I walk through the new building, I think about kind of everything that we, as a department or major, have worked for,” she said. “Everything that we kind of deserve, if that makes any sense.”
Brown-Cox, of Minneapolis, did not exactly describe the old science building in glowing terms. There wasn’t a lounge space for the students. The place “doesn’t smell the best,” she said. There have been flooding issues and leaks.
“Just having a place for the biology majors and the nursing and the math majors to come and have their own specific area and place to talk, and laugh, or even play games or study, and really just come to together as a community, I feel like it has so much value to it,” she said. “It makes me really look forward to the future that we have in that building.”