The University of Wyoming sciences quad as viewed from the west on the second floor of the Classroom Building on the west side. The University of Wyoming Science Initiative task force and a faculty committee are drafting plans for a potential $100 million program to renovate existing buildings and construct a new interdisciplinary science building on campus.
(Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Group plans $100 million project to remake science at University of Wyoming

By Gregory Nickerson
October 23, 2014

A task force is nearing the final stages of drafting a $100 million plan for a “Science Initiative” to remake the teaching of science at the University of Wyoming.

Members of a governor-appointed task force conferred with a faculty advisory committee at a meeting held in Laramie last week.

The Biological Sciences building, built in 1969, houses the offices and laboratories for the departments of psychology, zoology and physiology, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Cooperative Research Unit. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Discussion centered around a tentative proposal to construct an interdisciplinary research building on campus housing specialized labs and equipment that could be shared by multiple departments. The new construction could coincide with renovation or repurposing of the physical sciences building, the biological sciences building, and the Aven Nelson building.

Faculty said they would like the initiative to promote “active learning,” a style of teaching in which professors and graduate students rove around small group stations in a classroom, rather than delivering a conventional lecture.

Providing funding for recruitment and retention of high-performing faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates will also figure into the plan.

The task force is made up of academics, executives, Wyoming politicians, and researchers not affiliated with the university. One of the members is state Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), who was largely responsible for creating the Science Initiative.

Nicholas, along with Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), Sen. Tony Ross (R-Laramie), and Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) introduced an amendment the 2014 budget bill calling for the creation of the Science Initiative task force and laying out the points they wanted to see addressed in the plan. Gov. Matt Mead (R) appointed the members of the task force, who were charged with drafting a report by a Nov. 1 deadline, which has since been extended.

A lab in the Biological Sciences building. Many of the building’s interior finishes and configuration haven’t changed significantly since 1969, with the exception of the air handling system of the building that is in process of being replaced.
(Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“I think Phil Nicholas saw this as a real opportunity,” said Chris Boswell, vice president for governmental and community relations for the university. “He was looking at (the) biological and physical sciences (buildings) and (recognizing) we really need to think about moving these labs into the current era and the future, rather than designs that are 40 years old. Very much of this is Sen. Nicholas seeing this as an opportunity that should be seized.”

Boswell said that Sen. Nicholas had been in conversation with the university before the session about science labs on campus, many of which are located in buildings that haven’t seen a major remodel since the 1960s. Nicholas previously helped shape a $115 million project to revamp the College of Engineering using a combination of state funding and donations from the energy industry. That project is already underway.

During last week’s meeting, Nicholas advised the task force and faculty advisory committee to seek out a “demonstration project” that would highlight some of the best research going on at the university. He said such a project would need to be achievable in the next year or two with a legislative-funded budget of $5 million or less. Such a project, he argued, would help explain to legislators and the public the benefit of putting $100 million in state funds towards science buildings, teaching, and research.

Greg Brown, head of the faculty advisory committee and task force member, said finding such a project that could produce understandable results in such a timeframe could be a “big challenge.”

The Life Sciences Building mirrors the Biological Sciences building in design, forming the north half of the science quad. It was built in in 1969, and houses departments of chemistry, physics and astronomy, and the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium.
(Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Nicholas advised faculty members not to draft a plan that spreads resources too thinly, reducing the impact of the state funds. He also said faculty should avoid duplicating teaching facilities and laboratory equipment that could be found elsewhere on campus.

If the initial $100 million project goes well, and the state receives extra funds from investments or unexpected mineral revenue, Nicholas suggested the project could see a total investment of up to $300 million. For now, however, he said faculty should plan for a $100 million project that could be considered complete, yet also have space for adding on more funding at a later date.

Nicholas is the former chair of the Appropriations Committee and senate majority floor leader who is expected to be senate president for the next two legislative sessions. That would put him in position to complete a couple of key projects, one of which is the Science Initiative.

A likely ally of Nicholas in the Wyoming House is Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) the house majority floor leader in line to become speaker of the house for the next two sessions. The pair of Laramie lawmakers is poised to make the Science Initiative one of its major efforts.

The Aven Nelson building was completed in 1923. It originally housed the campus library, and later underwent a major renovation. The building takes its name from a renowned professor of Rocky Mountain botany Aven Nelson, who was the tenth university president, and devoted 70 years of his life to the university. Today the building houses the Williams Conservatory greenhouse for tropical plants, the botany department, and the Rocky Mountain Herbarium. The latter originated from Aven Nelson’s collecting and now houses one of the most extensive collections of Rocky Mountain flora in the world.
(Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The faculty advisory committee will have weekly meetings on Tuesdays leading up to a Nov. 16-17 meeting with the task force. At that point, the committee will deliver its plan for the Science Initiative, which will receive minor edits from the external task force. The final plan will then be sent to Gov. Mead for consideration as part of the budget proposal he will release to the Legislature at the beginning of December.

“We are working on some tactics to bring at least a $100 million onto your campus, maybe more in the future,” task force chairwoman Carol Brewer told the faculty committee. She is a UW alumna and professor of biological sciences at the University of Montana.

“We are trying to be tactical and strategic because we want to see you achieve this grand vision. We are your cheerleaders, and our job is to ensure you are successful. We are all completely on your team.”

Click here to see members of the committee.

Click here to view the 2014 budget bill.

Budget bill language (page 96):


Section 317.
(a) In consultation with legislative leadership and the University
of Wyoming board of trustees, the governor shall appoint a task force which
may include successful University of Wyoming graduates and employers in the
pertinent fields of science that will develop a plan regarding:
(i) The renovation and reconstruction of science laboratories
and instructional areas at the University of Wyoming, which shall be
designed in cost and approach to lead the university toward a top quartile
academic and research institution in areas of science pertinent to the
economies of Wyoming and the nation, and other elements related to
Wyoming’s quality of life. The plan shall include the science labs and
instructional areas in the biological science and physical science
buildings, the facilities in the Aven Nelson building, and consideration of
the construction of a structure that would provide space for temporarily
displaced programs due to the renovation and consideration of a new
location for the programs in the Aven Nelson building;
(ii) Improving the quality of instruction and research in the
various fields of science that supports the goal of being a top-quartile
science program that prepares students for successful careers in the
sciences. Emphasis shall be placed on the retention and recruitment of
high-performing faculty and graduate and undergraduate students,
encouraging innovative research, and educational partnerships with
employers of science graduates. The goals shall be improving the prestige
and quality of teaching and research in the sciences, enhancing
employability of University of Wyoming’s graduates in the sciences,
fostering opportunities for the creation of sustainable jobs in Wyoming,
and furthering economic development;
(iii) A means to finance the building renovation and program
improvements through a combination of sources, including state funds,
private contributions and grant funding in conjunction with the University
of Wyoming board of trustees and the University of Wyoming foundation.
(b) The task force shall periodically report to the legislature on
its progress in developing the plan and shall submit a final draft of the
plan to the governor by November 1, 2014. The governor shall submit his
recommendation for funding the renovation work and program improvements to
the joint appropriations interim committee by December 1, 2014.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at or follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY.

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Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on

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