Chemistry Building Renovation, Construction Will Create New Collaborative Learning Spaces
The $42 million project promises a new look, new life and a new neighbor for "Old Chem," plus the expansion of collaborative learning spaces on campus.

University Communications
Oct. 19, 2021


Chemistry Building groundbreaking
Participants in Tuesday morning's groundbreaking ceremony for the renovated Chemistry Building and new collaborative learning facility – "The Commons." From left: Alycia Cusson, an honors student majoring in physiology and medical sciences; Alison Rainey, principal architect, Shepley Bulfinch; John Pollard, associate dean for academic affairs and curricular innovation and professor of practice in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Gail Burd, senior vice provost for academic affairs, teaching, and learning and distinguished professor in Molecular and Cellular Biology; University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins; Lisa Rulney, senior vice president and chief financial officer, business affairs; Carmala Garzione, dean, College of Science; Liesl Folks, university senior vice president for academic affairs and provost; Corky Poster, architect and principal planner, Poster, Mirto, McDonald. Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Work is underway on a $42 million renovation to the University of Arizona's historic Chemistry Building and construction of a new building called The Commons that's dedicated to collaborative learning.

UArizona officials welcomed dozens of guests on Tuesday for a groundbreaking ceremony at the work site on the south side of the University of Arizona Mall.

UA Chem West Elevation.jpg

Artist's rendering of the west face of the completed project. At left is the historic section of the Chemistry Building, designed by legendary architect Roy Place; at right is a new facility dedicated to collaborative learning and research.
Artist's rendering of the west face of the completed project. At left is the historic section of the Chemistry Building, designed by legendary architect Roy Place; at right is "The Commons" – a new facility dedicated to collaborative learning and research. Sundt Construction, Shepley Bulfinch, and Poster Mirto McDonald

The combined 78,600-square-foot facilities will be the future home of classrooms designed to encourage cooperation, inclusive practices, and active learning to increase student and faculty engagement and help students develop workplace-relevant skills.

Spread between the new building and renovated Chemistry Building, known affectionately as Old Chem, will be seven collaborative classrooms that range in size from 30 to 200 seats.

"From the beginning, when we first revealed our strategic plan, we had our sights on renovating and reimagining the Old Chem Building into learning spaces that would support collaborative and flexible teaching," University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins told attendees at the groundbreaking. "We are investing in initiatives that encourage active teaching and learning practices, and this renovation is part of our goal to develop spaces on campus that leverage this interactive and holistic approach to teaching and learning."

In addition to four collaborative classrooms, the renovated Chemistry Building will contain departmental and advising offices and numerous workspaces for Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty; renovated space for nuclear magnetic resonance equipment and electronic and metal shops; a new General Education Office; and three teaching studios for online instruction.

"The renovation of the Old Chem Building will support the College of Science, chemistry and biochemistry department, and University of Arizona campus missions to provide high quality education and advance research," said Carmala Garzione, Dean of the College of Science. "The renovation includes state-of-the-art core research facilities that researchers and students across campus can access. There will be a visualization cave for immersive virtual reality learning. The renovation also will enable the expansion of the world-renowned, award-winning 'Chemical Thinking' education program that transformed chemical education at the University of Arizona and across the country.”

The project aligns with the first pillar of UArizona's strategic plan – the "Wildcat Journey" – by providing additional space for innovative teaching and learning that will prepare UArizona students to find solutions to the greatest challenges facing Arizona and beyond. It also extends the university's Undergraduate STEM Education Project, which since 2014 has transformed dozens of traditional classrooms on campus into collaborative learning spaces, intended to engage students in more active learning with features such as flexible seating arrangements and cutting-edge classroom technologies.

"The University of Arizona is strongly committed to world-class teaching and engaged student learning. The institution supports the Office of Instruction and Assessment and the Office of Digital Learning, and the 60-plus professionals from these units who work with faculty and graduate students to provide professional development in the use of the best teaching practices. Similarly, the university supports technology and classroom renewal, and since 2014, this has included transformation of 37 classrooms for collaborative learning," said Liesl Folks, university senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. "Seven collaborative classrooms that facilitate engaged and active learning will be housed in the renovated and new building. In these spaces, faculty members are using innovative teaching and learning strategies that promote higher-order thinking that leads to better understanding and an improved ability to transfer knowledge to other applications."

Tuesday's groundbreaking also included the burial of a time capsule. People at the ceremony were invited to add notes or mementos to a metal container. A plaque will be installed on site when construction is complete, directing future generations where to retrieve the container if and when subsequent construction replaces the new structure.

The renovation and construction project aims to maintain historic elements of the original Chemistry Building, which was designed in 1936 by legendary architect Roy Place, who served as the university's chief architect from 1924 to 1940 and designed eight building on campus, including the Steward Observatory, Administration Building and Gila and Yuma dorms.

"The reimagining of the Chemistry Building and design of the new teaching facility breathes new life into an important building on campus that will evolve with the changing landscape of education and serve the university well through the 21st century," said Alison Rainey, principal architect at Shepley Bulfinch, the firm that designed the new building. "The new design creates flexible and adaptable classrooms for teaching and learning with integrated technology and a variety of collaborative environments."

"Space is an important partner in the teaching and learning experience. The physical layout of a classroom impacts the pedagogy, and when you walk into a collaborative classroom, you realize that something interesting happens in the space," said Gail Burd, senior vice provost for academic affairs, teaching and learning.

"The furniture is arranged for small-group student engagement and for problem solving or creative thinking. In large collaborative classrooms, the best instructors make use of undergraduate learning assistants who have previously taken the course and enjoy helping other students learn the material," said Burd, also a Distinguished Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology. "In turn, the learning assistants gain a deeper understanding of the course concepts. Instructors can also use formative assessment of student learning by engaging in discussion with different groups of students around the classroom and then, can adjust their instruction to improve learning."

Sundt Construction crews began work in May, demolishing much of the interior of the Chemistry Building to make way for new construction, while leaving untouched the original facade on the north side of the building to retain the aesthetic character of the University of Arizona Mall, and portions of a 1948 building expansion.

Project managers expect the work to run through December 2022.


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