At Howard University, a gleaming $70 million science building allows students a more light-filled space to do their research and learning — and testifies to the growth and opportunity in technology and engineering. At George Mason University, construction is wrapping up on a $73 million building focused on the health sciences.
Universities in the Washington region have long been recognized for churning out politicians-to-be, diplomats and lawyers. But it’s an unprecedented science building boom — costing hundreds of millions of dollars — that is altering the landscape of campuses, fueled by burgeoning enrollment in science, technology, engineering and math majors.
“I realize we think of Washington as a place where politics is the central focus, but that doesn’t exclude us from doing science and wanting that area in our school to grow,” said Teresa Murphy, deputy provost for academic affairs at George Washington University.
At least eight universities in the Washington area have completed construction in the past few years or are building and renovating science facilities for their students.
“D.C. really is a science town to the point that people don’t recognize,” said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University, who pointed to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, biotechnology companies and defense contractors in the region.
Nearly 12 percent of workers in the Washington area were in science fields as of May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The area is tied with Seattle and Ames, Iowa, for the eighth-highest percentage of workers in science.
It’s not just schools in the Washington area that are spending millions of dollars on science facilities. Columbia University recently completed construction of a 450,000-square-foot science building, the University of Southern California opened a $185 million building in early November and the University of Washington is constructing a $110 million computer science and engineering building.
Federal and state agencies have provided more money for science research and education, which has also led to an emphasis on the sciences, said William Bentley, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Schools have taken the dark and dingy science labs of the past and remade them as open spaces with walls of glass. The buildings create areas for students and faculty members to discuss how their ideas relate to one another and can spawn collaboration between fields. And not just people enamored of particle accelerators and genetic sequencing — sometimes, political scientists are working with researchers in the hard sciences.
"The more we see dilution between the boundaries of the hard sciences and . . . social sciences, the more we see an increased interest in what is perceived as STEM, which is not necessarily your grandfather's STEM field," said Peggy Agouris, dean of the College of Science at George Mason, using the widely recognized acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Students have begun to "visualize careers in fields which are not the very cut-and-dried STEM fields," such as game design, computer science and visualization because of the multiuse buildings.
This movement away from single-use buildings on college campuses has happened primarily over the past few decades and has occurred because students and faculty want to learn from other disciplines. The Howard master plan initially “called for the construction of a couple of more discipline-specific research facilities,” said Derrek Niec-Williams, Howard’s executive director of campus planning, architecture and development.
This would have “contributed to more siloing” and prevented departments from working together as much as they are able to in the new multiuse building, Niec-Williams said.
The building creates “a really interesting research environment where scientists and engineers from all disciplines interact with each other on a really regular basis” in the building’s office suite, said Gary Harris, associate provost for research and graduate studies at Howard.
This office suite is different from the traditional setup of research buildings, where professors’ offices are within or next to their laboratories, meaning interaction with their colleagues doesn’t happen organically. The new design fosters those moments of serendipity.
Harris said the building was designed to allow more graduate and doctoral students to work on research with professors, not to add instructional labs for undergraduate science students.
“Although the building wasn’t necessarily designed with having an impact on undergraduates in research, it has,” Harris said. Professors have included undergraduate students in the research being done in the building, especially in the summer, when they can work more hours in the labs.
Trinity Washington University, a small and lesser-known school, opened its first new academic building since 1963 in 2016. The structure is a “first-class, modern, state-of-the-art” science building to continue the university’s growth in those areas, said Ann Pauley, vice president for institutional advancement and media relations at Trinity Washington.
A planned science hall at American “is a facility we’ve known we needed for well over a decade,” said Starr, the school’s arts and sciences dean, adding that plans to build the hall began before he arrived eight years ago.
Demand from students for more science space is one of the reasons university administrators give for constructing science facilities.
Increased interest in science — including recently emerged fields — has led to construction of facilities at George Mason, said Agouris, adding that the buildings are based on current needs for students, not future projections.
The combination of a need for space and a heightened interest from students in science majors, along with benefactors who wanted to promote science-based education, led to the construction of two science buildings at the University of Maryland, according to Bentley.
“The demand of the undergraduate program far outpaced the university and the faculty,” Bentley said.
Some universities, including George Washington, see building science facilities as a draw for students.
“If we’re building expanded facilities and if we’re upgrading facilities and expanding the faculty, that’s going to be a big attraction,” Murphy said.
An earlier version of this article misstated the cost of a new science building at the University of Southern California as $50 million. The article has been updated.