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UW-River Falls eyes STEM growth

Image courtesy of UW-River Falls1 / 3
UW-River Falls officials shared images including this as examples of outdated science facilities on campus that would be replaced by a new $111 million building. Submitted photo 2 / 3
River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau CEO Chris Blasius was one of several people who spoke Oct. 8 in support of a proposed Science and Technology Innovation Center at UW-River Falls. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 3

Aging facilities and a growing demand for science-related studies are among factors UW-River Falls officials say warrant a new building on campus.

University officials on Monday unveiled a $111 million proposal for a Science and Technology Innovation Center, slated to be built on the footprint of Hagestad Hall on East Cascade Avenue.

The proposal will be presented to lawmakers along with a similar science building project at UW-Eau Claire. Officials from both campuses said the requests, approved last week by the UW-System Board of Regents, would replace outdated facilities in the face of more students entering the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines that have become a pipeline to regional businesses.

"(It) will provide transformational experiences for our students," UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen said at the Oct. 8 event.

The River Falls project calls for a new 131,000 square-foot building with 12 laboratories, research spaces and a collaborative space for a university-business innovation partnership program.

Van Galen said the new spaces would be "a hub for internships" and more, such as business incubator facilities, where students can connect with startup businesses.

Biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and neuroscience departments will move from what university officials say are obsolete resources elsewhere on campus. Facilities in the 52-year-old Agricultural Science building and the 41-year-old Centennial Science Hall are outdated and, in some cases, present safety hazards, according to university officials.

Hagestad Hall, built in 1959, would be demolished to make way for the project.

UWRF student Sophie Ackerman, a sophomore studying neuroscience and biology, said subpar equipment on campus includes a shared microscope that requires students to use lights from their cellphones to illuminate objects.

She said modern equipment and more research space would be a boon to undergraduate research students like her.

"It ignites your passion," Ackerman said.

The Eau Claire project seeks a total of $256 million to replace the Phillips Hall science building there in a two-phased funding request that spans two state budget periods.

Leaders from both campuses — along with UW-Stout, located between them in Menomonie — said there's strength in numbers that they hope to leverage by way of regional assets.

"We've helped northwest Wisconsin thrive," UWEC Chancellor Jim Schmidt said.

The university leaders said there's sense to be made in investing in STEM-based infrastructure. St. Croix County has a projected 41 percent population growth between 2010-2040, while the state is poised for 13,000 new STEM-related jobs by 2020, according to UWRF.

More than 30 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded in 2017 at UWRF were in STEM fields, Van Galen said.

The funding request now goes before the Legislature, its first step in the process that would require the governor's signature.

Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, was on hand for the event. He said the UWRF project holds opportunity since it's strategically positioned near the Twin Cities.

"I'm hopeful that leadership sees it the same," Zimmerman said, referring to top lawmakers in Madison.

If approved, the UWRF project would begin construction in 2021.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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