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Sept. 17, 2021

MSU builds on its past to empower the future

The new STEM Teaching and Learning Facility combines historical and leading-edge elements in a transformative space for Spartan students and educators

It would be cliché to say Michigan State University’s newest academic building is a product of its environment, but it would also be accurate.


Case in point, the nucleus of this new facility is provided by a campus landmark, the 73-year-old Shaw Lane Power Plant. Although it was decommissioned in 1975, the power plant has found a fitting second life. The building that once powered campus is now empowering Spartans to innovate ways to learn and share knowledge about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

“At MSU we are constantly evaluating how we deliver a world-class education while also looking forward. What is the future of teaching? What is the future of learning? Nowhere is that more evident than the new STEM Teaching and Learning Facility,” said President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D., when the building officially opened on Sept. 10.


“We looked beyond just constructing a building to how the curriculum is delivered and how spaces are used, with a focus on the student experience. The potential impact is unlimited.”


Like the university itself, the new STEM Teaching and Learning Facility is so much more than a place where students attend classes. It’s a place where tradition meets innovation and where Spartans learn they have the power to change the world.

“The entire building is a student resource,” says Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “The immersive, flexible and interactive learning spaces will also support our faculty as they engage students’ interest in STEM-related degrees.”


Spartan innovation for education


Even if students are pursuing careers outside of STEM fields, odds are they will spend time in this building, says Barbara Kranz, director of Facilities Planning and Space Management at MSU. The new building is home to gateway courses in a multitude of majors: physics, chemistry, computer science, materials science and biological sciences.


So when Kranz and her colleagues first hatched the idea for a new teaching space on campus seven year ago, they knew it would need to be built in way that could serve every student and equip them to shape the future.


“We need to be educating our students for whatever field they end up in,” says Kranz, who oversaw the STEM building project from its inception to completion. “This building will help them be prepared to enter the workforce, whatever their path might be.”


With the future in mind, the building deliberately and artfully preserves the university’s history while reflecting Spartan values. These values — including sustainability, inclusivity and, of course, excellence in education — are on display everywhere in the building. That’s a big statement that can be hard to fully appreciate without seeing the building and understanding how many functions it serves.


“I feel like the building is a blend of classroom space, a library and a union,” Kranz says. “Students can collaborate together, they can take a class, they can get help, they can socialize. They can look at the past and look to the future.”


Exploring the more than 150,000-square-foot building — the renovated power plant accounts for about 50,000 of those square feet — confirms that every inch of this building was meticulously planned.

Get a glimpse of the new STEM Teaching and Learning Facility before it opened for operations in this video from March 2021. Credit: Infrastructure Planning and Facilities

But that sense of intentional design doesn’t come from any specific feature. Rather, everything feels seamless and sensible. No space is wasted. Everything serves a purpose. Often, more than one.


Artifacts preserved from the power plant have been transformed into seating and art installations in the new building. The power plant’s water tank remains at the top floor of the building to serve as a striking reminder of what it once was. But crews also used the tank to store water during the building’s construction.


Repurposing the power plant saved money while providing functionality. And this sustainable approach to design results in a building with an unmistakably Spartan aesthetic: warm, welcoming and ready to go to work. Bolstering both the aesthetic and sustainability factor is the building’s mass timber.


Mass timber refers to wood products used in place of more conventional construction materials, such as steel and concrete, that shoulder the loads of large buildings. Unlike steel and concrete, however, mass timber has an attractive carbon footprint. The trees that become mass timber suck carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere. Making steel and concrete, on the other hand, produces CO2.


The STEM Teaching and Learning Facility is the first of its kind in Michigan to be constructed with mass timber. No other building with combined lab and classroom space is currently built with the material.


Although the sustainability of mass timber may not be obvious to the average observer, the material itself is hard to miss. Inside the building, much of the timber is exposed, making this huge building where people share highly technical knowledge feel cozy. It’s been described “as if the building is giving you a hug.”


And this atmosphere is deliberate. The planning team worked to ensure all students feel welcome and comfortable. The giant first floor lecture hall features wide aisles to reflect modern accessibility guidelines and create more spaces where students with different mobility needs can learn comfortably. In older buildings, such accommodating spaces typically are relegated to the back of the room.


Throughout the new building, meeting spaces feature a variety of chair and table styles and heights, enabling everybody to meet in a shared space. MSU worked with Michigan furniture companies to create these accessible and inclusive spaces.


On top of that, the building’s common areas offer homey light fixtures, plenty of power outlets and ample white boards, making them spaces where students, staff and faculty would choose to meet with each other.


“We really wanted to have these comfortable, coffee-shop-like settings,” Kranz says. In fact, for anyone who enjoys coffee with their coffee-shop-like settings, there is a full-fledged café on the first floor called The Workshop, operated by Residential and Hospitality Services. It’s located steps away from the art installation housed in the power plant’s old boiler.


“This is a whole different way of thinking about how students run into each other and interact to create serendipity,” Kranz says. “We’ve built these informal/formal gathering spaces where students can just come and hang out. Or they can be used during class periods when faculty want their students to break out.”


These design principles and values are also evident in the building’s formal teaching spaces. For example, in the chem and bio labs, service lines carrying air and gas reach the students’ benches through columns mounted to the ceiling. In a more conventional lab, these lines would be built into benchtops and potentially obstruct views, especially for students farthest away from the instructor.


Using the columns opens lines of sight and possibilities by helping all students feel more connected and letting instructors more easily identify when students need help. Teachers also can work with building staff to move the columns to better fit an instructor’s needs for a class.

“We put a lot of effort into this principle that faculty should be able to change the space so it aligns better with the pedagogy,” Kranz says. “They can modify that over time without a lot of investment.”


Similarly, work surfaces and storage shelves in labs are mobile, allowing students and faculty to reconfigure layouts as needed. Larger classrooms for physics and computer science can also transform. Thanks to an abundance of projectors, moveable screens and mobile work surfaces, a classroom can easily shift from optimizing collective instruction to facilitating small-group work.


Simply put, the building was made to adapt to students and educators and what works for them, not the other way around.


“I think of this building as a tool,” Kranz says. “We’re here to deliver what works for the education of the student. The building is only a building without a strong foundation and a purpose.”


A strong foundation


For all the building’s exposed mass timber, it relies on a great deal of far less visible support. Getting this project off the ground took a tremendous amount of teamwork and buy-in.


The state of Michigan invested $30 million in the $110 million building because of the building’s purpose, as did the MSU Board of Trustees, which approved the building project in 2016.


To make sure the building offered educators what they needed, Kranz and her colleagues worked with deans and faculty from across the university: the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the College of Arts and Letters, the College of Engineering, Lyman Briggs College and the College of Natural Science.


To bring those plans to life, MSU worked with Granger Construction Company, pre-program planning consultant Sasaki and a design team of Integrated Design Solutions, Ellenzweig and IDEO. MSU also leveraged the on-site expertise it had in Residential and Hospitality Services, Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, Facilities Planning and Space Management, Information Technology and Environmental Health and Safety.


In some ways, it may seem like the building came together quickly. Going from an idea to a transformative powerhouse of STEM education in seven years is impressive. What’s more, building the facility took just three years, with one of those taking place amid a global pandemic.


But it’s also a story more than 70 years in the making. The foundation was built long ago, not just in the Shaw Lane Power Plant, but in the values that make people Spartans.


With the building now open, Kranz can take a minute to reflect on the journey.


“It’s overwhelming. It’s hard to believe we’ve arrived here. It’s so exciting to see the students, faculty and staff use the building,” she says. “The construction is finished. Now the real work starts.”

By: Matt Davenport

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