You are here

New Life for Aging Labs

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Antiques can be charming in the right setting. But chemistry laboratories are definitely not the right setting. 

Yet thousands of UW freshmen each year must complete chemistry experiments in laboratories dating back to 1937. The labs may have been considered state-of-the-art at one time, but now they seem more like “something out of Dickens,” as one former vice provost describes them. A teaching assistant (TA) jokes that he thought he “should be sporting a pair of knickers” the first time he encountered one of the labs.

Peeling countertops and antiquated fixtures are only part of the problem. The layout of the labs—large rooms with endless rows of benches used by three lab sections at once—makes teaching difficult. It can be a challenge to reach students quickly, and the noise of deafening fans and the distraction of other classes sharing the space make communication difficult.

“The department has been wanting to renovate these labs for nearly 30 years,” says Paul Hopkins, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “The issue has been money. The cost of updating all four freshman laboratories is about $10 million.” 

In a newly renovated freshman chemistry lab, students work on experiments at islands that accommodate six students, with easy access to the teaching assistant.

In a newly renovated freshman chemistry lab, students work on experiments at islands that accommodate six students, with easy access to the teaching assistant.  Media credit: Mary Levin

There have been numerous other renovations to Bagley Hall, home to the Department of Chemistry, as well as the completion of a new Chemistry Building attached to Bagley. But the four freshman laboratories have remained untouched — until now. The University recently provided funds to renovate one of the labs; the project was completed in November 2007. The department plans to renovate the remaining labs in stages, as more funds become available. 

The contrast between the new freshman laboratory and the older labs is striking. For starters, the renovated lab has been divided into thirds, so each lab section has a separate, quiet space. An additional shared space houses fume hoods. Maple cabinets, each filled with lab materials for a specific course, roll on casters and can be switched easily at the start of each quarter, saving time and energy. 

The freshman chemistry labs awaiting renovation have been described as “something out of Dickens” with their drab lighting, peeling countertops, and antiquated fixtures.

The freshman chemistry labs awaiting renovation have been described as “something out of Dickens” with their drab lighting, peeling countertops, and antiquated fixtures. Media credit: Mary Levin

Instead of long rows of benches, students work at islands topped with stone countertops that are impervious to chemicals. Each island accommodates six students, encouraging interaction and enabling the TA to move through the room easily. The layout also allows the TA to address the entire class when answering questions or leading a quiz section—an impossibility in the old space due to noise levels and poor sightlines.

Planning of the new space began in 2001 with a series of workshops to visualize the needs and requirements for the labs. A committee of faculty and staff served as the planning team.

“The hardest thing was to not be limited by the space we’d been in so long,” says Philip Reid, professor of chemistry, who served on the committee. “It was hard to think about all the possibilities— to really think about doing something different.” In the end, the group chose a design based on the studio concept, adopted at several smaller universities, which combines lectures and laboratories into a single class.

“The idea is that you talk about a concept, then explore it through experimentation, and then talk about what you’ve found, all in one session,” says Reid. “It’s a totally different way to do chemical education, and the lab was designed with that picture in mind.” 

Freshman chemistry students in the new lab.

Freshman chemistry students in the new lab. Media credit: Mary Levin

Given the number of freshmen chemistry students at the UW—about 3,000 each year—the department is not yet able to fully adopt the studio concept. Chemistry lectures are still held separately, in large lecture halls. But the department has taken the first step by having some quiz sections directly follow lab sections in the same space. 

With the new lab now open, the department is eager to replace its other “antique” laboratories.

“It’s not just a question of what you can and can’t do in the lab,” says Hopkins. “It’s also the message you send to students about how much you value the activity. For many of them, this is their introduction to science at the UW. We want it to be a positive experience.”