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Minnesota colleges, U of M gearing up for science boom

Finance & Commerce recently carried an interesting report that Minnesota’s post-secondary science programs are experiencing something of a “big bang.” The story took note of a Georgetown University study that found that by 2018, 70 percent of new jobs in the state will require some higher education, and quoted a Department of Employment and Economic Development spokeswoman as saying the colleges were investing in science, math and engineering facilities in response.

The building boom includes a 200,000-square-foot Regents Hall of Natural Sciences at St. Olaf College, the University of Minnesota’s brand-new 115,000-square-foot East Bank Science Teaching and Student Services building, and new health and science facilities in the works at Duluth’s Lake Superior College and College of St. Scholastica

Curious whether enrollment was driving the building boom, I called three of the schools and asked for more detail. At St. Olaf, a full 40 percent of students have a major or concentration that’s housed in its new facility, which includes 28 teaching labs, a massive library and a green roof. The building’s design is meant to encourage interdisciplinary inquiry.

Home to the second-largest nursing school in the state, St. Scholastica simply ran out of room in its 1960s science building, according to Joe Wicklund, director of First-Year Admissions. The new $15.5 million building will replace one that was built to accommodate 800-1,000 students. Today, more than 2,100 of St. Scholastica’s 3,900 students are working toward a science or health-science degree.

St. Scholastica’s profile in this sector may be on the rise, but there’s evidence to suggest that it’s not the only institution of higher learning where this is the case. According to the Minnesota Private College Council, biology is one of the five most popular majors at its member schools.

Top-flight facilities, both colleges acknowledge, are important to recruiting students and faculty. And these days, with tuition skyrocketing, prospective students are picky. “It is a much more savvy college shopper than in the past,” said Wicklund. 

Health care is where the jobs are, certainly, and “students want to walk out of this place into a job,” he adds, but after conducting countless tours with potential students, Wicklund is convinced that something more than pragmatism is at work.

Young people have told him they’re interested in going into occupational therapy so they can help Iraq vets, physical therapy so they can support athletes and all sorts of other career goals that are both more specific and more humanitarian than old stereotypes of careerists in the making would suggest.

“Their first desire is to give back and to have an impact on people’s lives,” he said. “They really are thinking health care is a way to do that.”

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