UW System: State investment in SciTech Innovation Center critical to future
With the approach of another commencement, I am reminded of the transformational impact that public higher education has on individuals, on our state and on the world. While the most essential elements of a UW-River Falls education are human—outstanding faculty and staff and dedicated, hard-working students—modern facilities that support teaching and learning are also critical.
At a time when we are encouraging our policymakers to renew and enhance funding for the UW System operating budget and for fair, fully-funded state employee compensation adjustments, we must be aware that it is also time for Wisconsin to invest in modern science facilities at UWRF. As requested by the UW System Board of Regents, the state should allocate at least $4.25 million in planning funds in its 2019-21 budget for the Science and Technology Innovation Center (SciTech).
What is SciTech?
SciTech, to be constructed on the current site of Hagestad Hall, would house the departments of biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology/neuroscience providing modern laboratory spaces for instruction and undergraduate research. In line with UWRF's commitment to innovation and partnerships, SciTech would also include a university-business collaboration hub to support internships and incubation of joint research projects.
Why is SciTech Needed Now?
Current laboratory facilities in the Agricultural Science building and Centennial Science Hall are aging. While we've tried to keep pace with minor upgrades, there is only so much that can be done with spaces that will be 60 and 50 years old (respectively) by the time a new facility is built. Infrastructure issues abound, such as outdated, barely-safe electrical and ventilation systems and non-collaborative layouts that do not support interactive teaching and learning. UWRF students regularly report that our laboratory facilities are inferior to those they experienced in high school, and local employers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields can attest that our facilities do not reflect the state-of-the-art resources graduates will need to use once they are part of the workforce.
UW-River Falls is demonstrating strength and significant growth in STEM. Last year, 31% of UWRF's undergraduate degrees were in STEM fields—among the highest rates in the UW System. The STEM programs at UWRF continue to be seen as programs of unique distinction and destination for new freshmen with enrollment in STEM/Health majors growing 40% between 2013 and 2016, in part driven by newly available academic programs such as agricultural engineering, data science, neuroscience, food science and technology and a companion animal emphasis in animal science. Increasing numbers of students are also benefiting from our commitment to undergraduate research, exploring hands-on work with peers and faculty that enhance their educational experiences outside of the classroom. Beyond just students majoring in STEM, two-thirds of UWRF students take at least one laboratory-based course before they graduate, and many non-STEM majors are increasingly interested in innovation, business development and prototyping.
To meet the needs of all of these students, UWRF needs SciTech. New laboratory and interactive research facilities are crucial for them to build critical thinking and scientific literacy skills important to their careers and futures as informed citizens.
What is the vision for the SciTech?
Winston Churchill once said "We shape our buildings, and then they shape us." SciTech is envisioned to enhance active student learning and student engagement with faculty in undergraduate research. It will support demand for talent development in STEM-related areas while also allowing for growth in UWRF's signature agricultural programs.
SciTech will also allow for unprecedented engagement with regional businesses with its proposed UW-River Falls/Business Innovation Collaboration Space intended to foster business growth and increase public-private opportunities for engagement between UWRF faculty, staff and students and industry professionals and entrepreneurs. A dedicated makerspace and high-tech laboratory facilities will be available for product development, material and chemical analysis, joint research projects, computer aided design and 3D printing and prototyping, all aimed to result in more internships, enhanced student learning experiences and support of economic development in our growing region.
Ultimately, SciTech is not just a building, but rather a testament to our 125-year legacy serving the region by educating students for high-demand careers and engaged, productive lives.
SciTech needs public support
In the coming months, elected officials will need to make hard choices about the use of limited state resources for capital projects. They will need to address why they should invest in the UW-River Falls SciTech project. Simply put, an investment in SciTech is an investment in a region that is a driver for Wisconsin's future. The demographic and economic data projections set our region apart. For example, between 2000 and 2018, the population of St. Croix county grew 40%, nearly twice the rate of any other county in Wisconsin.
I am grateful for the strong support for this project already expressed by the city of River Falls and our local economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, and businesses in the region. Our local elected officials, Sen. Patty Schachtner and Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, have expressed their support but legislators from other parts of the state now need to hear from economic entities and citizens. They need to know that UW System funding, a fully-funded state employee pay plan and at least $4.25 million in design funds for the SciTech Innovation Center are a priority.
What can you do to help?
On Monday, April 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Riverview Ballroom of the University Center, UW-River Falls will host one of four public hearings of the state legislature's Joint Finance Committee on the 2019-21 budget. You may wish to attend the hearing and testify, or simply visitwww.uwrf.edu/scitech to sign a "pledge" as a SciTech advocate. You could also contact your legislators directly and explain why both UW System funding and SciTech planning funds in the 2019-21 state budget are a priority. Thank you!