With the fall semester well underway, University of Wisconsin-Madison students are adjusting to a (mostly) in-person class schedule for the first time in a year and a half. However, for the thousands of students taking a chemistry course with a lab this semester, classes remain virtual due to ongoing construction delays of the university's chemistry building.
The Chemistry Building Project, which began in 2018, is a two-phase project that includes the addition of a nine-story tower, as well as the renovation of lower floors in the building that normally house lectures, laboratories and student services for undergraduates.
Though the new tower was planned to be completed by the end of this summer, the project is experiencing continual delays that have affected the ability of chemistry students to attend labs in person and conduct research in the building. For undergraduate students, this transition to online marks the fourth semester of virtual labs, a less than ideal format for hands-on experiments. The lack of in-person lab experience is becoming a growing concern for students.
"I spent a month or two doing actual labs before going online in March 2020," said Cole Bell, a third year UW-Madison student currently in organic chemistry. "It's definitely a concern of mine that I'll be doing lab work in my post-graduate studies having no in-person experience."
Chemistry students found out only in late August via email that the building would not be available for labs, lectures or research.
The delay also impacts researchers and collaborators who rely on the building facilities, instruments, data and research from students. The UW-Madison Chemistry Building is a complex structure of four interconnected buildings. There are two concurrent closures in chemistry buildings that both contribute to the transition to an online format for students.
Construction on the northeast building on the corner of University Avenue and North Mill Street was focused on renovating classrooms and teaching labs for undergraduate students. Originally planning to open in June, the elevator shafts were unable to pass pressurization tests, rendering it a fire hazard and unable to be used this semester.
The second closure results from issues with renovations of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems of the two oldest buildings — the Daniels Wing and the Mathews Wing. In late August, there was a planned eight day shut-down of the renovated wings to connect the air systems to the other buildings. Midway through this shutdown, it was announced that due to exhaust problems, the opening of these buildings would also be delayed. There is potential for the two wings to open in late October or early November, a senior graduate student who wishes to remain anonymous said.
Graduate students at large are experiencing problems, as most of the research facilities are currently unavailable. These setbacks have led to various timelines adjustments to give graduate students more time to complete essential components of their degree — such as the thesis background exam and research proposal.
These closures have implications for both undergraduates taking their essential chemistry courses and graduate students getting the necessary research they need to complete their degree.
More senior graduate students have expressed concern about this affecting their ability to graduate at their intended time. An extra semester for graduate students could lead to loss of grant funding and compensation from future jobs they are unable to start without final elements of their degree completed.
"The impact goes beyond just the students in our department, it goes beyond our university," said the anonymous graduate student. "It's impossible to calculate just how widespread these delays are for graduate students and researchers."