Issue No. 14, Fall 2009, Volume 9, Number 1


Exterior photo of Science Complex at North Campus
Science Complex at MDC's North Campus

Building for the Future

Gariot P. Louima
and James Harper

Students in two-year science programs don’t generally conduct the kind of research that leads to publication. Those two years are primarily developmental, and the top students may secure internships or placement in special research programs at nearby institutions where they’d assist university students and professors in their projects.

The vision is a bit different at Miami Dade College. "If students are going to develop a love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM disciplines as they’re commonly called – then they should get involved in serious scientific inquiry early in their academic careers," said North Campus President Dr. José A. Vicente.

That educational philosophy lured Dr. Heather Belmont, a neuroscientist who conducted research on therapeutic anti-viral and anti-cancer biologics, to Miami Dade College.

Belmont was recruited to help found the College’s cutting-edge Biotechnology Program, a comprehensive training program with a variety of specialized certificates and degrees in biotechnology, bioinformatics and chemical technology.

To graduate from the program, students are required to complete an internship in the field. More importantly, they spend the bulk of their time in state-of-the-art laboratories where professors teach industry protocols and regulations; recombinant DNA technology and its role in product generation and formulation, manufacturing, instrumentation and validation; and how to store, process and analyze biological data. “I was inspired by what was going on at North Campus,” Belmont said.

Inspiration turned to exuberance when Belmont was asked to continue at the College as the chair of the biology, health and wellness department at North Campus. In that position, she would help write grant proposals to support the expansion of science programs at North Campus. Those programs will eventually move into a $40 million Science Complex, making the campus a regional hub of STEM education and research. “It is highly unusual for a two-year college to devote these kinds of resources to science education,” she said.

The science labs at North Campus were constructed in 1964 and have had only minor renovations since the initial construction. The bioscience laboratories consisted of a single, 20-year-old autoclave and antiquated instrumentation.

The physical science labs had no functioning gas system for Bunsen burners. The labs had shifted to hot plates for occasional portable burner units with butane tanks. The instrumentation room didn’t have running water, distilled water, sinks, gas, vacuum, fume hoods or Internet access.

The science library was also outdated; 40 percent of library holdings in the STEM disciplines were published prior to 1970. And though the campus library had subscriptions to electronic databases, there was no computerized library lab to provide hands-on instruction to teach students how to access those resources.
Updating the space wouldn’t make financial sense, explained North Campus Administrative Dean Cristina Mateo. In 2004, the College received special state funding to construct the Science Complex. The College also received two Title V grants totaling $6.3 million, partially to help equip the laboratories with the latest technology.

This new science structure changes the forecast for the sciences at Miami Dade College.

Looking west across the North Campus lake on clear evenings used to reveal a sunset, but today the sunlight frames a futuristic monument. From its expansive plaza and lush gardens outside to its speedy wireless technology inside, the Science Complex intends to be a magnet for all students.

“It was designed to bring the student into science,” said Michael Boulos, chair of the North Campus chemistry, physics, and earth science department. “Science buildings tend to be drab, but this one is designed to be outgoing and colorful, a welcoming and friendly environment. We didn’t want it to be institutional.”

Designed by architecture and engineering firm M.C. Harry and Associates, the panoramic three-story, 70,000-square-foot complex will hold 21 state-of-the-art laboratories, a 200-seat lecture hall and offices for faculty.

Inside, the sciences take on a human scale. Budding biologists in white lab coats will breed fruit flies and squint into microscopes in classrooms along the second floor, which is devoted to the life sciences. Stepping up to the third floor, the mechanics of nature will be dissected and precisely measured within the disciplines of the physical sciences, including meteorology. Rooftop access will allow for telescopes to observe major celestial events – such as comets and eclipses – that could be simultaneously broadcasted to classrooms. The structure’s sleek, intersecting horizontal and vertical lines won an American Institute of Architects design award in 2005, the same year of its groundbreaking.

Boulos senses the eagerness of the faculty to move into their new space. “They have been hoping for a new building for so many years,” he said. “It will really enhance teaching. Students will be immersed in science.”

The new laboratories will allow research at an unusually high level for two-year degree programs. In the past, MDC students seeking original research experience had to travel to the University of Miami as part of the Bridge program. But now the North Campus will offer similar opportunities to a larger number of students.

MDC students have already put their thumbprints on the complex’s surroundings. In a contest with parallels to the reality TV show Design Star, architecture students competed to design the best landscaping to complement the building’s new plaza, which will feature brick walkways and tropical gardens.

“We are under budget constraints. So I thought, ‘Why not have a design contest?’” said José Vazquez, assistant professor of architecture. He developed the idea with inspiration from Dr. Steve Ritter, associate professor of biology.

With only one week to sketch and prepare their palm-lined plans, students had to face a North Campus jury that included Dean Mateo, who is overseeing the science complex project. The winning design came from first-year architecture students Reymi Sánchez and Yasmany García. Their plan for the 140,000-square-foot space connects a series of circular walkways surrounded by palms from around the world. The so-called Palmetum will contain the most diverse collection of palms in the region outside of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which is assisting with the collection.

“The students produced a design that is fascinating,” Vazquez said. “Typically they don’t get to see their projects built.”

Other plans for the exterior include a botanic garden. Raising plants indoors will be accomplished under two giant white domes and a glass greenhouse that will allow the expansion of the North Campus agricultural science program, which was approved in June 2008. Ritter’s horticulture students will be involved in planting and cultivating specimens.

“We want as much involvement as possible from students,” Ritter said.

Already a shift has begun within the meteorology program. Since the fall, a new WeatherBug station has been posting live data on the North Campus homepage. The station and webcam is unique in the area and provides constant feedback to a system used for forecasts by CBS-4 News.

Soon students will be traipsing across the new brick pathways on their way to classes in biology, chemistry, and earth science. And if the weather turns ugly, they can dash inside and do more than just watch the rain. They can figure out why there is electricity in the air.

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