West Point cadets begin classes in new Science Center
January 11, 2012
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Jan. 11, 2011) -- West Point's new Science Center opened for business Jan. 9 as cadets and instructors occupied several classrooms to start the spring semester.
Although there's still another four years of construction to the second and final phase of the project, the north wing--located across from Jefferson Hall Library--received its first volley of cadet traffic since the area was vacated for the project in 2008.
"It's finally happening. We're almost fully functioning now and ready to go," Lt. Col. John Hartke, a photonics professor, said on Friday.
Hartke is representing the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering and Col. Russ Lachance represents the Department of Chemistry and Life Science during this renovation and upgrade project.
Hartke, whose son is now a yearling at the academy, recalls touring colleges with him and gleaning features from various science buildings at each campus that could be incorporated at West Point.
"As I was taking my son to look at colleges, I went to every one of their science buildings and sort of took ideas I liked," he said. "We went to so many different campuses it's hard to remember where I saw what, but there were some great things I was able to bring back here."
It was during a Project Kaleidoscope workshop where he learned the principles of "making science visible."
The interior windows, which provide a glimpse from the hallways into the laboratories and classrooms, is a unique feature, Hartke said.
"Wherever possible we wanted to place these windows so when cadets are passing by they can look in and see what's going on inside," Hartke said. "We got the idea from a study as a way to increase student interest in the sciences."
If cadets are exposed to more science in action, then they may consider the option of making it their major. Another way to increase the visibility of science is through display cases, which Hartke said will contain various eye-catching science items throughout the facility.
"To me, the greatest excitement there is here--and there's actually many pieces to get excited about--is 'making science visible,'" Lachance said. "A lot of the labs and equipment had been buried out of sight in the basement, and people in our own department never knew some of the things we had down there."
The Science Center will also feature combination classroom-laboratories which have been dubbed "classatories." Previously, an entire class would have to move to another floor to conduct experiments; now it's a matter of moving a few feet.
"One side of the room is nominally the classroom side with the desks and chairs, screen and overhead projector you typically see in a West Point classroom," Hartke said. "The other side is nominally the laboratory, and it has all the instructor benches capable of doing any kind of experiment or lab that corresponds with what is being taught."
At West Point, when instructors want cadets to demonstrate their knowledge, they'll ask them to "get up and take boards."
"In the future, what we want to be able to do is say 'take experiments.' While we are teaching class, we want to blur the classroom-laboratory experience; we want the cadets to come into a space where they not only see the information being presented but experience the science," Hartke said.
Lachance said oftentimes in colleges the lab is a separate course from the lecture.
"So there's a huge disconnect from the lecture and the lab experience," he said. "So here we can make that seamless. It's all about hands-on learning."
The wall-to-wall chalkboards--a West Point standard--are installed in the classrooms along with the unique instructor benches that can support both chemistry and physics instruction. The backsides have built-in DC power supplies; natural gas and vacuum components; computers to run the projectors and connections to run other computerized equipment for classroom demonstrations. However, the chalkboards are noticeably absent in the classatories. The two that are completed in the chemistry section instead have tablet computers for cadets and instructors for classwork. Lachance said it will take some adjusting to a new way of doing business.
"You can capture board work digitally on them, send it to your shared drive and bring it back up on your computer later on," Lachance said. "Even instructors have to work around that change of methodology because they're used to boards."
The Photonics Research Center--Hartke's proving ground--houses a high-energy laser with a kilowatt of power.
"Cadets are using this to model and determine whether or not a laser can shoot down a mortar," Hartke said. "We have the ability to burn through metal with this, so when cadets have a model of how that would react we can secure the metal, shoot the laser at it and determine if our model was correct."
The new optics classroom has an adjoining optics learning laboratory.
"So while I'm having a class in the one room, anytime during the lecture I can easily say, 'OK, let's go to the lab and see how that works,'" Hartke said. "We can walk into the next room, conduct an experiment and then go back to the lecture."
Lachance said cadets and faculty have the knowledge and equipment to conduct cutting-edge research at West Point; but the problem was using modern technology and equipment in a facility that pre-dates World War I.
"In the end, we will have facilities that can support 21st century research," Lachance said. "We have been doing 21st century research in facilities that can't support it. We've only been limited by the infrastructure, not by the equipment."
With a greater emphasis placed on research at the academy in recent years, the Science Center provides all the real estate needed to do so. Lachance said one only has to look at the cold lab, suitable for conducting experiments in sub-degree level temperatures, or the tissue lab, a completely sterile lab environment, to see the benefits of the renovation.
"We will finally have the infrastructure to support some very state-of-the-art equipment," Lachance said. "With this Science Center being built we were able to then justify and get some equipment we never had access to before."
One example of this is the scanning electron microscope, which will be used to support nanotechnology research. But the state-of-the-art facility would be nothing if it didn't include an equally impressive amount of safety features as well.
"This is an incredibly safe environment to conduct experiments; much bigger and safer," Hartke said. "I didn't have these kinds of laser curtains; I didn't have this amount of power available and so now we have an increased capability to do much more than ever before."
Hartke is particularly proud of the fact this new facility contains 61 fume hoods, a number that perhaps only scientists or science professors could assign adequate meaning to. Hartke explained that it's about safety and knowing that if any noxious or poisonous gasses arise from any experimentation, these hoods will immediately eliminate the threat …and there are 61 of them ready to do the job.
"I would challenge any university that has a building this size to have more," Hartke said. "It's a significant number."
The antiterrorism force protection and seismic upgrades are regulatory requirements for renovations and account for almost 40 percent of the total cost of the building. Each window is double-paned, with the original exterior window dating back to the 1960s, and the added protection of a blast window on the inside. Another 12-14 inches of concrete was added to the interior walls on each level for seismic requirements.
With the north wing completed, demolition and construction will soon begin on the other side of Bartlett Hall. The south and east wings are slated first for renovation, with the west wing expected to begin work in the summer of 2014. When the entire project is completed by 2016, the Science Center will house the Department of Chemistry and Life Science in addition to the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, as well as four research centers and elements of the academy's Special Collections and Archives.
The origin of the Science Center can be traced back to 1965 when the Corps of Cadets doubled in size and a need for additional space to teach science became an issue.
Lachance can still walk into the same science lab today he used as a cadet in 1985. For many years, it became a matter of making do with the space available and configurations sometimes required a little creativity.
"What they would have to do is shoehorn a lab facility in a building that wasn't designed for one," Lachance said. "It's a no-control environment, so you'd have this guy over here trying to grow bugs that can't grow because it's too hot or too cold."
To say that space was tight would be an understatement. Cadets studying physiology would take exercise bikes in the hallways to conduct research. Visual aids would be stockpiled in cabinets, only to see daylight when needed. Now, the bikes and all the plastic skeletons, body parts and research equipment are on display.
Several configurations were considered before it was eventually determined to build a new library--the Jefferson Hall Library--and overhaul the old one to make room for a science center. Retired Col. David C. Allbee, the former head of C&LS, who helped establish the Photonics Research Center and served as its first director, is largely credited with supplying the vision of the Science Center.
"It was Col. Allbee who kept that vision alive and kept the fire burning through it all," Hartke said. "Col. Lachance and I, we were just here to bring it home. It was really Col. Allbee's vision and perseverance that allowed this all to happen."
Many more people have contributed over the years to make the Science Center a reality, to include the contracted architects, Corps of Engineers and West Point directorates, staff and faculty.
"There have been and still are many people here responsible for this great addition to the USMA landscape," Lachance said. "They deserve a lot of credit and I look forward to seeing them recognized when we officially open this north wing in the coming weeks."