Franklin College planning new science facility

In Franklin College’s science classrooms, students are researching how antioxidants protect cells from stress and aging.

Classmates are figuring out how to synthesize certain sulfur and nitrogen compounds which are emerging as vital tools in new medicines. One group is conducting research on how global information systems can monitor, track and understand the causes of disease outbreaks.

All of this research is conducted in the college’s nearly 90-year-old science building. In the next two years, students will have a cutting-edge facility to match the work they’re doing.

The college’s board of trustees voted to move forward with the construction and redevelopment of a campus science center featuring new labs, research centers and classroom space to better explore biology, chemistry and other science disciplines.

Work is expected to start in June, with classes starting in the fall of 2018. With design and planning aspects still ongoing, cost and size estimates are not finalized yet, said Thomas J. Minar, president of Franklin College.

The center will be the centerpiece of Franklin College’s campaign to emphasize science instruction and project-based learning on campus.

“It’s a significant update to our facilities, which enables us to take some of the approach we take to science education and expand on the excellence we have in student research,” Minar said. “On the other hand, it also advances us in terms of making us attractive to prospective students, and sends a statement to industries in the area based in science about our desire to be a part of changing sciences in the region.”

In an effort to address a shortage of qualified and ready-to-work graduates that the life sciences industry faces, Franklin College developed its Campaign for the Sciences.

School officials redesigned the curriculum in 2011 to put more emphasis on ‚Äúlearning by doing.”

Those concepts are already in place in one of the college’s most recent science initiatives, a master’s program in athletic training. The program, which started this summer and currently has seven students enrolled in it, is the first graduate program at Franklin College.

In a redeveloped space in downtown Franklin, students learn the advanced concepts and techniques of injury prevention, diagnosis and rehabilitation in order to get patients up and moving again.

Here, too, project-based learning is the bedrock of the curriculum, said Jennifer Austin, director of the athletic training master’s program.

“We have a fairly large research component built in, so that’s a key difference between the undergraduate program. The content is similar, but the approach to it is at a higher level. Students are really required to do a lot of prep work coming into class,” she said.

Students are working on research such as looking at physical activity level and lower back pain in high school athletes. Another group is comparing the impact of traditional foam rollers and new vibrating versions on spine movement in baseball and softball players.

The new science center will make that kind of learning possible in all disciplines.

Plans call for the modernization and expansion Barnes Hall, a classic brick structure constructed in 1927. While the building has been a central part of campus for nearly a century, its features no longer work with the college’s science aspirations.

Science instruction of the past relied too much on lectures and canned lab sessions that yielded predictable results, professor Steve Browder said.

“Now, with open-ended investigation and inquiry learning, a 1927 building doesn’t meet those needs,” Browder said.

One of the most effective ways to implement that is through undergraduate research. The goal is to not only expand their breadth of knowledge, but to also gain experience that will make them valuable in internships and employment after graduation.

Even in their freshman and sophomore years, students are encouraged to get involved in research projects, Browder said.

“We think students should get involved in undergraduate research early on, and that it shouldn’t be restricted to students who excel in certain classroom activities,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s the student who maybe isn’t as motivated in a traditional classroom setting who gets involved in a research project and blossoms.”

The new science center will be instrumental in putting that concept into practice.

Though design plans are still being finalized, the new center will include four times more undergraduate research space than in Barnes Hall, Browder said. These specific spaces will allow students to do long-term research without having to move or disturb their experiments when other classes are in session.

“It’s really difficult to run ongoing research projects out of teaching labs,” Browder said. “Students will get a project set up, but then someone will need the space for a lab. This way, they can come in at odd hours and work on their own schedule.”

Labs are being designed to be more modular and flexible, so that students can move around to encourage working together on problems. Drop-down utilities will be installed in the ceilings, so that students can gain access to electricity, gas or air where they need it.

Increased space will allow for rooms large enough to combine labs and lecture at the same time.

“That idea of flexible space is important because things change. What we’d envisioned as a biology lab now, five years down the road maybe will be a chemistry lab,” Browder said.

Students will have dedicated lounges and study areas to collaborate with each other and professors. The botany department will have a greenhouse accessible through the building, so that it can be better used in the winter.

“We’ve got several projects involving growing plants, and you need a facility to do that,” Browder said. “This facility will be light years beyond what we have right now. And we’d like to see some of our other faculty implement plants as well. Plant molecular research is a really important part of our economy.”

Groundbreaking and site work is expected on the project in May, with the construction starting in June. An aggressive timetable means that the goal is to have the science center finished, furnished and equipped in time for the start of classes in August 2018.

“My goal is to make this project available as quickly as possible,” Minar said. “We need this facility, and the community has waited a long time. We’re at the point where we can move, and move quickly, so I’m excited that we can do that.”

At a glance

Franklin College Campus Science Center

What: Franklin College approved a project to redevelop and expand the science building on campus, adding lab space, dedicated research areas and other features

Timeline: Groundbreaking in May 2017, construction starts in June 2017; the project is expected to be finished by August 2018.

Cost: Not yet known

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.