In a corner of Strong Hall, UT’s new state-of-the-art science facility, the past and the future coalesce to form the Visualization Lab, informally known as the “Mission Ops Room.” The new building sits on the site of the old Sophronia Strong Hall and during the planning process, the design team preserved parts of the old building for use in the new structure. The north wall of the Visualization Lab is one of those pieces.
“The concept for the space was loosely modeled on the idea of a scaled-down version of NASA’s mission control room, with individual workstations in each of the seating positions and overview information presented on the big wall-mounted screens,” says Jeff Moersch, professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “We intended to feature the facility prominently in future proposals to NASA for UT-led planetary spacecraft instruments and missions as a way of demonstrating our commitment to public outreach for such projects.”
Lauren McGraw, a PhD student in EPS, and Joshua Emery, Lawrence A. Taylor Professor of Planetary Sciences, took the lab on its first test drive October 4, 2017. They arrived at 6 a.m. for astronomical observations of an asteroid using a NASA telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii
“The target of the observation is a so-called near-Earth asteroid because its orbit around the Sun brings it close to the Earth, but not close enough to represent a hazard,” Emery says.
As part of her PhD work, McGraw has been observing a number of different near-Earth asteroids in search for signs of water molecules at the surface.
“It is possible for small amounts of H2O to remain attached to the dusty and stony grains on the surface of asteroids, even in the cold vacuum of space,” Emery says. “Where H2O is present, even in tiny amounts, it could represent a resource for future space exploration.”
In her scientific exploration, however, McGraw is primarily interested in learning about the physical processes that enable the H2O molecules to form.
“Asteroids represent the primordial material of planet formation,” McGraw says. “I want to observe the spectrum of light to determine the composition of the asteroid, which will let us know how this particular body formed.”
Other EPS students and faculty will have the opportunity to conduct research in the new space, taking advantage of the videoconferencing tools to connect with colleagues across the world and sometimes, even outside this world.
“The features of the lab will allow us to engage students and other members of the public as we conduct our work on projects, such as participating in operational planning for the NASA rover missions and conducting remotely-controlled telescopic observations of solar system objects from observatories around the world,” Moersch says.
Faculty and students in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences are not the only new group of occupants in Strong Hall excited about their new home.
One floor up from the Visualization Lab, students and faculty in the Division of Biology have new classroom and laboratory spaces designed for flexible, interactive learning.
“The classrooms we used previously were so cramped that it was difficult for instructors to engage students beyond those at the front of the class,” says Randy Brewton, general biology program coordinator and senior lecturer in the Division of Biology. “The new instructional spaces in Strong Hall encourage students to work with each other, actively engage in the course content, and to collaborate in genuine problem-solving activities. Our new space is flexible and will be able to accommodate curriculum changes as we incorporate the latest research in instructional pedagogy and the psychology of learning. It will be exciting to see how future generations of students will benefit from the investments made in Strong Hall!”
Organic and general chemistry labs, classrooms, and offices occupy the third floor of Strong Hall. Faculty and staff in the Department of Chemistry are excited about the impacts the 14,000-square-foot new lab space brings to chemistry education.
“I think that the new building enhances the student and faculty experience at UT,” says David Jenkins, associate professor of chemistry. “The building looks great and has tons of natural light. All of the labs have much more space per student and are designed with technology in mind. In particular, the organic labs are excellent with top-notch instrumentation.”
Bhavya Sharma, assistant professor, taught chemistry in Strong Hall for the Governor’s Schools for Science and Engineering over the summer to high school students who had never taken a college-level chemistry class. She is interested to see how the new building impacts recruitment.
“They were impressed by the facilities, so hopefully that will encourage them to come here in the future,” Sharma says. “I think the new labs are amazing. They have so many new features and new instruments, and the new design of the lab spaces allow the teaching assistants to see all of the students at one time. It’s really exciting.”
Martin Walker, a PhD student in anthropology, says the move to Strong Hall was a dream come true for faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Anthropology, which occupies the fourth and fifth floors of the building. Walker spoke on behalf of the department during the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony September 8.
“South Stadium Hall had been our home for over 40 years,” Walker says. “Not only was it the location where our seminal programs began, but living and working in the Stadium has been a badge of honor for all anthro majors who have passed through our doors. Tall tales, which grew taller every year, of having to fight monster-sized rodents or of having to trek down the never-ending hallway, have been passed down for generations of students and can be heard on the lips of alumni at meetings and reunions.”
The move to Strong Hall brings brand new research space for the archaeological field programs and biological and forensic research projects. Faculty and students in the Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights certificate program, among others, have new interactive spaces where they can discuss research and scholarship without have to circle the Stadium to find a place to meet.
Like all the other new residents of Strong Hall, Walker is excited about the opportunities the new state-of-the-art facility brings to the scholarship, research, and teaching within the department
“While our traditions, our roots, and our tall tales from the Stadium will still endure, the new facilities allow us to grow and build new traditions, start down new paths, and no doubt, create new tall tales, of which I cannot wait to hear,” Walker says. “For me, the move to a new building had been on the horizon for the duration of my entire graduate career. I feel privileged to have been here just long enough to see and experience the first steps of this new chapter on the history of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee.”
The facility’s innovative design emphasizes collaborative team learning. Faculty who use the rooms must redesign their courses to be more interactive and fully use their cutting-edge technology. Data from these classes will be collected and used to re-engineer each course’s syllabus to make it more efficient and effective.
“Strong Hall is the first addition of a general classroom and laboratory building in many years, which is good news in its own right,” said Dave Irvin, associate vice chancellor for facilities services. “But it’s also a major leap forward in our teaching and research capacity.”
Universities from around the United States are already looking at the design of these rooms.
“Every entering STEM major on campus who walks into this building will take classes in truly state-of-the-art laboratories and regular classrooms, where a far more active and exploratory approach to learning is possible,” says Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Strong Hall’s three-year construction wrapped up last spring. The building opened for summer classes in June 2017. Read all Strong Hall news on Tennessee Today.
Originally published in Higher Ground, April 20, 2017.