Building a Better Blocker

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Second phase of major renovations to VWC's natural sciences building to include many repairs and upgrades as well as the creation of six dedicated research labs

By Leona Baker | June 17, 2011

altBlocker 302 has seen its share of separations and reactions—the chemical kind, that is. The General Chemistry Lab on the top floor of Blocker Hall, Virginia Wesleyan College’s only natural sciences facility, has served students and faculty for nearly as long as the College has existed.

Thanks to a major renovation project totaling $2.8 million, however, this well used room—along with many others in the building—is getting a much needed overhaul. Scheduled for completion before students return this fall, these renovations will allow science majors and non-science majors alike access to modern research facilities and state-of-the art equipment that will prepare them for advanced study and careers in the natural sciences and beyond.

The current phase of modernizations will complete a larger project, the first phase of which took place last summer and focused on the renovation of the Advanced Chemistry Lab (Blocker 304), the Chemical Storage Room (Blocker 303), the Physics/Geology Lab (Blocker 104) and the Molecular Biology Lab (Blocker 7). The project was divided into two phases so that the work could be done during the summer when regular classes are not in session.

Built in 1970, Blocker Hall has undergone only one other significant renovation in 2003 when two small spaces (Blocker 210, a computer lab, and 211, a microbiology lab) were combined to form a 900-square-foot microbiology teaching and research lab that supports advanced courses in genetics, human anatomy and physiology and microbiology.

Room for Improvement

In the General Chemistry Lab, where there once were lab tables, clean-up sinks, beakers and Bunsen burners, there is now an empty cement slab with exposed pipes and a lone periodic table on one wall. But that’s all about to change. Blocker 302 is one of three existing joint teaching/research labs that will get significant upgrades to electrical, plumbing, lighting, temperature control and ventilation systems this summer as part of the second phase of the series of renovations that began in 2010.

The other two are the General Biology Lab (Blocker 102) and the Environmental Science Lab (Blocker 203, 204, 205 and 206). Included in those upgrades will be substantial changes to room configurations to ensure that lab benches and work spaces can support more student projects than in the past.

In addition to refurbishing of these teaching/research labs, a total of six new dedicated research labs will be created through the repair of existing lab and project spaces in Blocker. These will include a Spectroscopy Lab (Blocker 305A), an Electron Microscopy Lab (Blocker 4), a Freshwater Ecology Lab (Blocker 101A), a Chromatography Lab (Blocker 301A), a Mercury Analysis Lab (Blocker 203A), and a substantially larger wet lab, the Chesapeake Bay Lab (Blocker 7A-9, rendering above).

These new spaces will double the capacity for students majoring in biology, chemistry, and earth and environmental sciences to conduct independent, hypothesis-driven research in these fields each year. The creation of dedicated research spaces that are usable by faculty from different disciplines will also promote collaborations and enhance the overall quality of research training across the natural sciences, while renovations to the existing infrastructure will support advanced instrumentation such as scanning electron microscopy and ion chromatography.

“It is very exciting to see these renovations being realized,” says Maynard Schaus, Professor of Biology and Director of Undergraduate Research at Virginia Wesleyan. “These new facilities coupled with new equipment, such as an electron microscope, will greatly enhance our ability to support undergraduate research in the natural sciences.”

In Support of Science

The cost of the second phase of Blocker Hall modernization project is approximately $1.4 million, half of the $2.8 million total cost. Roughly half of the $1.4 million for Phase II was provided by a $621,507 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the “Strategic Modernization of Undergraduate Research Facilities in the Sciences.” This prestigious award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.

“For this small, liberal arts college to be recognized by the National Science Foundation tells us that people know where we are academically and that we are about the task of being engaged in quality academic pursuits,” says VWC President Billy Greer. “We have seen a renewed interest in the natural sciences and this grant is symbolic of that movement.  I am very proud of everyone across campus that made this grant possible.”

Additional gifts to the project include: Birdsong Corporation/George and Sue Birdsong $375,000, S. Frank Blocker, Jr. $200,000, Beazley Foundation $200,000, Hampton Roads Community Foundation $114,076, and Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges Capital Project grants totaling $14,000.

Most recently the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation has approved a matching grant of $250,000 for the Blocker Hall modernization. The College must raise $500,000 in new commitments to receive this grant. The challenge will continue through the spring of 2012.