New science building at McHenry County College a hit with students, staff

Students and staff praise cadaver lab, planetarium, design of facility

McHenry County College's new Liebman Science Center is a hit with students and staff.

The state-of-the-art facility caters to students pursuing careers in biology, physiology, chemistry, health care and astronomy.

Classes in the 40,867-square-foot facility began this week, and students and staff already are singing its praises. It boasts a minimalist design with large windows to maximize views of green space and allow natural light to flow in.

"I love it," occupational therapy student Kirsten Culver said. "We have class right outside of this building, but we always come in and sit and eat lunch and study together because it's really nice."

Fellow occupational therapy assistant student Caressa Sorensen expressed similar sentiments.

"There's more light," Sorensen said. "They have more to offer."

The center, which cost about $17 million, was funded by private donations, a student infrastructure fee and college budget contributions.

After years of debate, construction began in May 2017. The McHenry County College Board of Trustees came to the conclusion that the college’s existing science facilities were outdated and students needed something better.

The center includes space for biology, anatomy, physiology, physics, chemistry, earth sciences, meteorology and astronomy classes, as well as a cadaver lab and planetarium.

"I took science classes in the previous building, and I'm super jealous of all the students that are taking anatomy and physiology here, because they have cadavers," Culver said. "It would have been beneficial."

Biology instructor Rob Smith said the cadavers are "a great benefit" to students pursuing careers in medicine. The bodies are donated by Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois and will be returned to the association in a few years so they can be cremated for the descendants.

"We have two males and two females," Smith said. "There's about 20 to 30 years of timespan between the youngest to oldest cadaver. It works out great that students can view different pathologies as the body progresses."

The center also has several learning spaces that will be used for both science coursework and general coursework, depending on space needs of the college. These spaces include two lecture halls and one resource laboratory.

"Compared to where we've come from, it's light years different," Smith said. "You see the looks on the students' faces, and they say how great it is and how they're looking forward to stepping [into] class. Having students enthused about learning is the first step."

The building’s planetarium window displays one of the first Hubble telescope images of a galaxy and stars, including nebula clouds of new, forming stars. The window is illuminated at night.

"I can fly through space," said Paul Hamill, who teaches astronomy in the new planetarium, which is complete with movie theater-style chairs. He zooms in and out on planets on the large planetarium dome with an Xbox controller.

"Students want to go in there all the time," Hamill said.

He said he hopes to host weekend sessions for young children and area residents interested in learning more about the universe.

Hamill also is pleased with the new outdoor compass rose, a large brick compass on the grounds of the west side of campus for outdoor skygazing and gathering.

"In astronomy, you have to understand where things are located in the sky. You have to know direction. The compass rose allows me to take my students out there and hold a compass in my hands and point at objects. It shows them how to find things live," he said, adding that about 30 or 40 students can fit on it. "Before, it was just me showing a picture on a screen. Now it immerses them in the compass."

The two-story center, which is connected by a corridor to the north of Building E at 8900 Route 14, also is on track to become a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver-certified building, with features dedicated to energy saving, water efficiency, emissions reduction and indoor environmental quality.

One hundred percent of the lighting and plumbing fixtures were designed to reduce water use throughout the facility by at least 30 percent.

The improvements are not only inside – there also is a charging station for electric vehicles and dedicated parking spaces for low-emitting vehicles. Engineers added bike racks to encourage students to cycle to school.

Additionally, more than 75 percent of the construction waste generated during the build has been recycled or salvaged, according to the college.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect what Paul Hamill teaches and what Caressa Sorensen is studying.

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