Touring the newly opened Physical Sciences & Engineering Center at Foothill College, it's easy to forget you are on the grounds of a community college. Considering the center's 65,800 square feet -- replete with state-of-the-art equipment and a forward-thinking, elegant design -- you would be forgiven for believing you were at a top-notch UC or private university.
In fact, according to a number of the Foothill College faculty members who teach in the new science and engineering wing of the campus, the labs are likely better equipped than the undergraduate facilities at other community colleges as well as many of its public and private universities. Not including the research departments of California's major schools, of course.
On a recent afternoon, Peter Murray, dean of Foothill's physical science, mathematics and engineering division, led the Voice on a tour of the $41.6 million center, which opened its doors in January. Murray was clearly proud of the new facility -- a sentiment shared by the faculty.
"This is amazing," says David Marasco, a physics professor at Foothill. "I feel like I walked from the 20th century into the 21st century." Marasco says that a lot of the technology in the science and engineering center is not commonly found at community colleges.
Take, for example, the 3D printer, which can essentially "print" physical objects designed by students. The device, which looks like a large microwave, takes instructions from a computer-assisted design program, relays the instructions to a robotic arm, which, in turn, lays down thin layers of plastic until an object emerges. The 3D printer can be used to fabricate custom gears and sprockets for a robot and other specialized components -- whatever a student can dream up.
There are also two high-powered microscopes in the center's arsenal of top-notch scientific equipment -- a scanning electron microscope and an atomic force microscope -- both of which are used by professionals working in the semiconductor industry to examine microchip wafers for imperfections, among other applications.
Upstairs from the 3D printer and super microscopes is a large laboratory, where Murray finds Victor Tam, a Foothill chemistry professor quite clearly enamored of his new quarters.
"It's fantastic," Tam says, as he points to multiple stations equipped with fume hoods, which allow students to work with chemicals without being exposed to hazardous fumes. The fume hoods were in very short supply in the old laboratories, Tam said. Now there are enough for an entire class to work at the same time.
Tam is also pleased with the extra space available in the new facility. In two large rooms attached to the laboratory, the chemistry instructor identifies a number of machines used in pharmacological and forensics research, including a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, gas chromatograph and a mass spectrometer. The school had some of these machines before moving to the science and engineering center, Tam says, but now they have more and they have room to organize the devices in a way that makes them much more accessible and usable.
Designed for efficiency
It's no accident that Tam should find the laboratory so usable. The new center was designed deliberately to increase efficiency, both for the faculty and the students. Taking cues from Silicon Valley tech giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook, the center's layout is meant to encourage students to interact with their classmates and instructors in between lectures.
The center's three buildings wrap around a central quad with a cafe and patio at one end. Inside the building housing the cafe, there are common areas, where students can sit on couches or at tables. Wall-sized white boards invite students to draw, leave messages or even work on equations in a relaxed, social atmosphere.
The offices of science, math and engineering professors encircle these common areas -- a design feature that Amanda Norick, a chemistry instructor, counts as one of her favorite elements of the new facility.
"You used to have this big, long line of students just waiting around to see you at office hours," Norick recalls. "Now, they're sitting at these tables, there are dry-erase boards all around where they can work on problems together while they're waiting. It just seems like that connection to our students is so much better."
Tom Blake, a second-year electrical engineering student, shares Norick's views when it comes to placing the instructor's offices around the student commons. "I study there all the time," Blake says. "It's a great place to go brainstorm and go over ideas. It's really conducive to group studying. And the professors are all right there, so if you have questions, potentially, you could go ask them."
Overall, Blake says he thinks the science and engineering center is "awesome" with far superior facilities compared to the former science labs, which he remembers having "sketchy Bunsen burners."
"It feels safer," Blake says.
"It's just straight-up better," says Sid Bhadra-Lobo, a second-year pharmaceutical chemistry major.
Collaboration in mind
Bhadra-Lobo says he likes being able to park in a lot directly adjacent to the building where he spends most of his time. He also likes the desks in the lecture halls and some of the classrooms. Outfitted with wheels and a tabletop that can swing to either side of the chair, the desks can accommodate both right-handed and left-handed students, and can be easily moved into circles for group work.
Indeed, some of the greatest improvements that came with the new facility have little to do with advances in technology. Sarah Parikh, an engineering instructor, said she is very pleased that some classes have been outfitted with moveable lab tables, so she can have the class rearranged depending on the lesson plan. Murray notes that installing Ethernet ports in lab stations has made for more stable internet connections. And large windows have helped flood classes and lecture halls with plenty of natural light, making for a more enjoyable experience with less glare from florescent lights.
If any of the instructors are unhappy with the new facility, they will have to blame themselves -- at least in part. The center was designed with heavy input from all of the Foothill science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) faculty. "The faculty had input at just about every step," Marasco says, "and we got the building that we're going to be teaching in for the rest of our careers. We made sure we got the best building that we were going to get."
Marasco says he hopes that the new facility will help solidify Foothill as a magnet for STEM learning among community colleges. "We've got a very good building, we've got very good faculty and staff, and we've got very good students," he says. "We'd like to see more of those very good students."
The school already attracts a higher-than-average number of instructors with doctoral degrees, many of whom could just as easily find work at a research university. They come, according to Murray, for the same reason Marasco decided to come: he finds teaching to be very rewarding.
Marasco says he joined Foothill because he saw it as a college dedicated to providing its students -- many of whom have few other options -- with a top-notch education. In his view, the new science and engineering center is more evidence of that. "The taxpayers in our district have been very generous," Marasco says. "They've seen us as a good investment."