Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Coppin out to STEM the tide with Science & Technology Center

University’s new science building may help improve retention, graduation rates

Coppin State University is the latest of several Maryland colleges to throw support — and dollars — behind the hot-button fields of science, technology, engineering and math as a way to boost competiveness and attract highly motivated students.

Coppin’s Science & Technology Center, seen in this rendering, is scheduled to be completed in spring 2015. It will sit on the southern end of campus, across North Avenue.

Coppin will soon begin construction on the $120 million Science & Technology Center, a project officials said is necessary given the poor quality of current science facilities. They also hope the highly modernized, 150,332-square-foot building, which is scheduled to be completed in spring 2015, will help boost academic performance at the West Baltimore school, which has long struggled with retaining and graduating students.

“If someone walked into the existing science building, I can guarantee they would not come back for the sciences on this campus,” said Maqbool Patel, assistant vice president for administration and finance. “But now, [the new center] will attract students who are inclined to pursue their studies in the STEM programs. And someone who is already on the campus, they’ll be encouraged to stay. We’re pretty confident — I’m very confident — that this facility will actually bring a major change to the campus.”

The center, which is expected to earn LEED Gold certification, will house the Department of Natural Sciences, the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and the university’s Information Technology division. In addition to programs for science majors, requisite basic science courses will also use the laboratories and classrooms. The center will also include office space, lounges and study areas, a greenhouse and exhibit spaces.

A groundbreaking ceremony will be held May 14. The center will be located on the south end of the campus on North Avenue, a site currently occupied by row homes. Coppin just finished the four-year process of purchasing 210 properties there and negotiating with tenants to relocate them.

“This is the beginning of a renewed science program on the campus,” Patel said.

That’s been a long time coming for Patel and other Coppin officials who were around in 2004, when the lengthy process of getting a new building began. That year, a consultant determined that the existing building — which is still in use — lacked adequate equipment and laboratory space for professors to meet the accepted standards for science education.

The Percy Julian Science and Art Building dates to 1967 and hasn’t been renovated since 1991. Not only is the building inferior to science facilities at other Maryland universities, Patel said, but “it’s really not even competitive with what they have at some high schools.”

For at least the past decade, Coppin officials have watched graduation rates plummet to levels now among the lowest in the country; 15 percent of students graduate after six years, while the four-year graduation rate is 4 percent.

Patel said the outdated facility is a disadvantage for students enrolled in science programs at Coppin — many of whom chose the school for the range of career-track programs it offers — and a deterrent for potential undergraduates interested in STEM fields.

A new building with state-of-the-art amenities is essential for preparing students to compete on a level playing field in the workforce, officials said, and for helping Coppin catch up to higher-performing schools throughout the state, several of which are also upgrading their STEM-related facilities.

The University of Maryland, College Park broke ground in 2010 on the $128 million Physical Sciences Complex, and construction is on track to be completed in the fall. At the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus in Baltimore, construction is underway on Malone Hall, a $30 million project to house the School of Engineering.

Stevenson University is moving its science departments to a renovated facility in Owings Mills, while Goucher College is transforming its former library into classroom and laboratory space for several academic programs, including the physical sciences.

Though the state granted Coppin’s full funding request, officials did raise some concerns.

The Department of Legislative Services questioned whether Coppin would be able to cover future operating costs for a large new project. At the end of fiscal 2012, the school disclosed a structural deficit of $1.4 million in its operating budget, causing Coppin to lay off 12 employees and eliminate 27 contractual or vacant positions.

State officials said the deficit was largely due to chronic under-enrollment. Coppin’s infrastructure is designed for about 6,000 students, but enrollment has been about 3,800 for years — even as the state’s college-age population has grown.

Patel said the new building’s ability to increase enrollment is precisely the reason it’s so necessary.