Cross, business leaders highlight need for new UWM Chemistry building

UW System President Ray Cross and business leaders toured the UWM Chemistry building Thursday to highlight the need to replace it and other aging academic buildings statewide.

“Growing Wisconsin’s talent pipeline requires a reinvestment in classrooms to train and develop graduates in high-demand programs, such as science, health and nursing,” Cross said.

Gov. Tony Evers has proposed spending nearly $1.1 billion for capital projects on UW System campuses, where 60 percent of the buildings are between 44 and 69 years old.

A man talks at a podium while several other people look on.
UW System President Ray Cross (right) watches as UWM Chancellor Mark Mone talks with the media Thursday in the Chemistry building. UWM and UW System have proposed building a new $129.5 million, 130,000-square-foot chemistry building to replace the current one. (UWM Photo/Pete Amland)

Cross identified the UWM Chemistry building as UW System’s top priority for replacement, saying it was widely considered in the worst shape of any science building in the state. Built in 1972, the building generates about 450 maintenance calls per year to address issues with its plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems. Students and faculty members who joined Cross for his tour and a news conference that followed talked about having to delay lab work because ventilation problems allowed fumes to build up.

“You can’t run a modern chemistry class out of your kitchen,” Cross said as he stood in one 47-year-old lab. “This looks like the chemistry labs I was in in the 1960s. We don’t teach chemistry today the way we did in 1965. It’s much different and much more effective.”

Chemistry education today involves a high level of collaboration among undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members and research that uses sophisticated equipment to take precise measurements. The UWM Chemistry building’s separation of classrooms from labs makes it difficult for students to interact and see the integration of teaching with experimentation, said Joe Aldstadt, the chair of the UWM Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Setting up instrumentation and equipment to accommodate laboratory experiments is hampered by the restrictions in available lab space for experimental setups.

Several students watch as one student talks to media from a podium.
Several students talked about the need to replace the Chemistry building. (UWM Photo/Pete Amland)

Noting that nearly 96 percent of all manufacturing involves some form of chemistry, UWM Chancellor Mark Mone said it was critical to provide students with good facilities in which to learn and scientists with modern equipment and space in which to do their research. UWM and UW System have proposed building a new $129.5 million, 130,000-square-foot chemistry building to replace the current one.

“One of our most central missions is to prepare people to launch their futures from a position of strength,” Mone said. “We know that STEM jobs are growing faster than non-STEM jobs and that employers need graduates who have the opportunity to conduct practical research and develop skills to solve problems.”

More than 3,300 UWM students are enrolled in chemistry and biochemistry classes during the current school year. The classes are taken by students studying engineering, nursing, freshwater science and other sciences, as well as chemistry and biochemistry.

Business leaders call for improvement

Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, spoke about the importance of UWM’s chemistry, health and science students to the state’s workforce.

“I’m here because a capital investment in a new chemistry building is one of the most important investments we can make in our economy,” Sheehy said.

In the past five years, UWM has graduated 269 students in chemistry and biochemistry. Taylor said those graduates were critical to companies struggling to fill positions.

“This is the talent we need for our community to grow,” she said, acknowledging the students at the news conference. Looking around the lab, she added, “Students deserve more than this to learn in.”

Students said they were attracted to UWM because the quality of the faculty outweighed the old building. They talked about the projects they working on, including development of new methods of treating pain that don’t involve opioids.

“Just imagine what we could do if we had great new facilities,” doctoral student Daniel Knutson said.

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