What could a new, state-of-the-art science building do for students at the Alabama School of Math and Science (ASMS) the current, circa-1940s facility can’t? Just ask a student.
“So, actually last year, I was able to participate in the school’s fellows research program,” ASMS senior May Jung said. “It was my first time engaging in true-blue research and I think one of the most important elements of that program was to actually create your processes and experiments and collect the data firsthand. Having a research center and having the resources and the space needed to carry out those experiments, I think would be a wonderful benefit to the school and the students.”
The building that currently houses the science classes at the school was never meant for its purpose. ASMS President John Hoyle, Ph.D., said it was originally built to hold Sunday school classes back when the ASMS campus in Mobile was a church.
“We’ve been grateful for it and we’ve used it well and we’ve taken care of it and many amazing things have happened in that building, but we have outgrown it,” he said. “So, our future is probably where you parked, which is where that science building will be built in the next two and a half years. On the corner of Ann Street and Caroline Avenue.”
Amenities for the new building, named in honor of biologist and Alabama native Edward O. Wilson, will include classrooms for science studies and a dedicated, stand-alone research laboratory. Currently, students can do research, but it’s “haphazard,” ASMS biology teacher Natalie Ortell, Ph.D., said. The new building will improve the school’s ability to provide students with research opportunities.
“It will be where actual research occurs so there’s a biology floor, there’s a section that is set up for where we come together as a research team to collaborate on hypotheses on how we’re going to design our experiment and then we can move right into the actual laboratory space … where we can do things like grow and culture different microbial species and cytoplasm species and look at how different environment perturbations might impact them, where we can go out and actually collect samples from Mobile Bay and look at how different nutrients are changing,” Ortell said. “And so there’s an actual laboratory space that is separate from the classroom, which lends itself to true-blue research and I’m very excited about that.”
The research opportunities for ASMS students will be similar to college-level classes, Hoyle said, but maybe not quite as intense.
“I would say to some degree, almost there, but maybe baby steps toward that,” he said. “You know, if full research looks like a dissertation, which is broken down into five to seven chapters, maybe our students get to three and it’s a proposal. It looks more like a research proposal.
“A lot of kids can participate in that. Maybe there’s a subset of 15 to 20 kids at some point who go beyond that and actually get to do that research, but our kids are already doing a lot of research.”
The future facility will be paid for by a state appropriation to the school of $6.23 million, Hoyle said. The state has been very supportive of the school, which is open to students from all around the state in their sophomore through senior years.
“They fund the school completely through the Education Trust Fund and they’ve been very generous to us for years,” Hoyle said. “With this appropriation, they got a real glimpse into what our kids are capable of and what our facility is capable of, and they gave us way more than they have given us in the past. They said, ‘For your good work, we believe in your future, build the science building.’”
In addition to the proposed science building, the state has also funded an outdoor classroom, in the form of a pavilion, and an amphitheater, where students can hear lectures, watch presentations or be entertained by performances by the drama and band programs.
Jung said she’s particularly excited about the outdoor amphitheater as a member of the school’s garage band. In addition to allowing for performances, it will also allow students a break from studying, she said.
“Obviously, it’s a really great space for students to just hang out and socialize,” she said. “We spend a lot of time in the library doing work. So, just having that environment to hang out and chill with friends, I think would be great.”
The school also received Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, which helped ASMS convert old storage space into a set of classrooms and labs that are equipped to handle distance learning.
“We’re in need of more social distancing rooms, we’re in need of better technology to be able to educate our students in this very complex time, and so through CARES funding, they gave us an appropriation to renovate the storage facility into a remote learning center and makerspace,” ASMS Assistant Director of Communications and Alumni Outreach Allyson McMaken said.
“Initially, it serves the purpose of we need bigger classrooms, we need more classrooms, we need more technology to be able to educate our students in multiple capacities, but at the same time, we’re saying our students are very creative, very innovative, and so they have the ability to make discoveries, come up with ideas and build things that are beneficial to the school, the community, the nation and the world,” she added. “So, this concept of innovation spaces has really been shown to prepare students with the soft skills they need — empathy, collaboration, critical thinking — that they also need to be successful within the workforce.”
These additions to ASMS will help it better compete with other prestigious schools, not only in Mobile but statewide as well, ASMS Director of Admissions and Outreach Ken Robinson said.
“It will let students know that the availability of education is on a level other schools just cannot match from a high school level,” Robinson said. “You look at education around the state and one of our priorities is reaching students from a socio-economic disadvantaged situation or rural areas — to be able to tell them you’re coming into a first-class facility with top-notch professors.”
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