November 16, 2013

MJC science center a star in its own right

The building soars skyward, a mix of earthy materials and celestial images, but what faculty see when they look at the Modesto Junior College Community Science Center is hope.

The building soars skyward, a mix of earthy materials and celestial images, but what Modesto Junior College faculty see when they look at the Community Science Center is hope.

“I see a huge change in attitude,” said chemistry professor Mary Roslaniec. Even outside of class, she said, students seem more engaged. Budding scientists congregate in bright, airy study areas. Many are open to an outside breeze, thanks to wide, covered exterior hallways surrounding the classroom core.

A vision voters supported with a 2004 construction bond for the Yosemite Community College District now has its showpiece nearly complete on MJC’s west campus. The 110,000-square-foot science complex had a construction cost of $37.3 million. Its total budget of $70 million dwarfs all other projects of the $326 million Measure E bond.

While the numbers are large, the sprawling district spreads the cost over $48 billion in real estate, according to bond financial documents. The owner of a $100,000 house pays about $25 a year toward the total bond, including $5.29 a year for the science center.

“I’ve observed a big difference,” said anatomy and physiology professor Pamela Upton. “I have students tell me they feel they’re at a university.”

Dean Brian Sanders, head of the science, engineering and math department, sees the future in the earth-tone walls around him. “This is going to be the go-to destination for science in this area,” he said.

From its floor plan to its sculptures to its light-filled classrooms, the center is designed to inspire budding scientists and grab the attention of Valley youth and point them to college. Classes started this summer. High school Science Olympiad participants will be on site competing in March. The opening of the Great Valley Museum in April will bring in elementary field trips and community foot traffic.

Sanders envisions more colleges recruiting his students.

“I’m trying to divert kids to education. I want to open the eyes of folks who don’t see college as a possibility for them. Talk about your Dreamers! Now we have this facility right here,” Sanders said, noting youngsters used to trek to San Francisco or beyond for such experiences.

The new center houses whiz-bang science museum extras to rival anything in Golden Gate Park:

• A Foucault pendulum swings noiselessly, knocking over a circle of metal pegs each day as the world turns.
• The planetarium boasts a Carl Zeiss projector so cutting-edge the company brings prospective buyers to MJC to view the system, the only one in North America.
• A 6-foot Science-on-a-Sphere from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hangs in an open room, able to show classes weather patterns across the globe, geology of the Earth, the sun spewing flares or what’s known about the surface of any planet in the solar system.
• A roof-mounted, 26-inch telescope and motorized observatory roof circle ever so slowly to compensate for the rotation of the planet. To stabilize it, the building sits on foundations reaching 60 feet underground and an independent structure buffering it from vibrations. Side benefit: Microscope viewing is also clearer in the no-jiggle zone.
• A fountain outside intermittently tosses water arcs into perfect parabolas.
• An open stairway runs from the lobby to floors, spiraling around a sculpture of an insulin DNA strand. On the stairway, letters at the left and right of each step form a genetic code with base pairs of nucleotides.

“There are a lot of interesting examples of science built into the building,” biology professor Elizabeth McInnes said. “It brings science to life.”

The building, planned to last a century, won a 2013 Design Excellence Award from the American Institute of Architects, Sierra Valley Chapter. Its energy efficiencies will earn it a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, builder Kitchell calculates.

The Great Valley Museum, still incomplete, sits as the building’s first-floor centerpiece. Wide, coffee-table-high tiers for nature scenes sit empty, a wealth of taxidermy treasures biding their time in a back storage area.

It will open in April, Sanders said, delayed by a combination of state approvals and ongoing budget constraints. While Measure E provided ample construction funding, the museum’s larger footprint and expected uptick in visitors will call for more staffing – pulling from a different wallet. The recession’s drain on operating dollars left Sanders filling in as museum director. He said he expects to need more than the 100 or so existing museum hourly workers and volunteers to make the move and man the gates.

“Once we’re open, we’re going to be wide open. But until then, I have concerns,” Sanders said. He expects a flood of field trips and visitors to stream in once those doors open.

The new facility offers more than triple the space of the old museum’s cobbled-together complex: a 1930s campus bookstore, a garage and a double-wide trailer parked at Stoddard and College avenues. Museum gardens will be left behind, though some plants may find their way to what is now a weed-choked block of dirt behind the Science Community Center.

The area will someday showcase native plants and tiny animal life in a model of the Sierra Nevada, foothills and Valley. Faculty protested a one-year delay in creating the living laboratory, but Sanders said the budget-tied breather brought about a better plan for the area, calling it “a healthy pause.”

Workaday science teaching takes place on the second and third floors of the center, where classrooms open to an inner core of storage and prep spaces.

Upton’s anatomy classes occupy the second floor, north side. On the south side is biology and zoology. Between them runs an interior passage, the domain of techs. There, Devin Jones stores and preps classroom materials, monitoring a new water purification unit, autoclave sterilizer and cooling units.

Denise Godbout maintains the two specially vented dissection rooms, thankful to have an on-site washer and dryer for dirty aprons. “I used to have to take them home and wash them,” she said.

Roslaniec’s chem classes meet in the western half of the third floor, four rooms connected to an interior stockroom manned by Matt Page. He organizes class sets of chemicals, rolling directly from stockroom to classroom between periods. At the old building, techs maneuvered carts of glass beakers along sidewalks, dodging passing pedestrians.

The department trimmed stocks and reorganized chemicals with the move, separating those that react together. Talking while whirring magnets stirred a tall beaker, Page said if something spills, “I just have to clean up the mess. You don’t have to worry about – is this going to have a toxic gas?”

In her classroom, 16 vented chem lab stations replaced four or fewer. “Every student lined up to watch. Out of four to six students, only one was doing hands-on (experiments),” Roslaniec said. “This is much, much better.”

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