The university's Montgomery County Center is bursting at the seams. With 8,300 students enrolled in part-time graduate programs at the center, space has become a scarce commodity. A breezeway, for instance, now acts as a classroom and a former coat room has been turned into a small, windowless conference room.
Yet hope looms on the horizon as ground breaking for the campus's new $7.9 million academic and research building is planned for mid-October.
The three-story, 49,000-square-foot building is expected to open in the spring of 2000. The new space is needed to accommodate a steadily growing enrollment and to meet the skill needs of local businesses.
This new facility, to be built adjacent to the current building, is one of five additional buildings called for in the 38-acre campus's master plan. Planning for the third building will begin in three months.
Elaine Amir, director of the Montgomery Center, says the expansion is "long overdue." Since the center opened in 1988, course registration has increased by an average of 25 percent each year, Amir says, and it's estimated that it will increase by 39 percent in the next five years.
"The reason we need more space, more labs, more buildings is that we simply have more students," Amir says. "We can't introduce new programs here. We stopped doing that because there just is not enough space."
The Montgomery campus currently houses more than 40 part-time graduate programs from four university divisions: the schools of Arts and Sciences, Continuing Studies (business and education), Engineering, and Hygiene and Public Health. Upon completion of the new building, programs in the School of Nursing and the Peabody Institute will also be housed here.
Expanded programs in biotechnology, environmental hygiene, technology for educators, bioinformatics, the business of nursing and biomedical engineering also will be featured in the new facility.
The campus's master plan calls for six buildings arranged in a quadrangle, with the original facility acting as the centerpiece. The first of the new buildings, planned by Lavigne Associates Architects, will be built by contractor J.R. Austin Co. of Bethesda, Md., in association with the architectural firm of Kling, Lindquist. It will be divided into two parts, an academic wing and a services and support wing, with a walkway connecting the two. To complement the existing building, its exterior will be pre-cast concrete and will have aluminum-framed windows fitted with gray glass.
The structure will contain 15 "smart" classrooms, wired for wide-area and local network connections, which can seat from 26 to 30 students. In addition, the facility will house four computer labs and a 100-person seminar room. The space has been designed for flexibility, so that computer labs can be easily converted to classrooms or vice versa.
A bookstore, faculty and student lounges and a coffeehouse also will be included. In the existing building, Amir says, most of the lounges, breezeways and conference rooms have been converted to classrooms due to lack of expansion room.
"We think it's affecting the quality of student life here," Amir says. "The fact is, right now there is no place to sit and lounge, or just be quiet and closed off. But the initial plan for this campus was to have a relaxing environment where adults could study."
Amir says that upon completion of the new building, many of the conference rooms and lounges in the existing building will be returned to their original uses.
The construction is being partially funded by a $3 million capital grant that was recently approved by the state. The remainder of the $7.9 million will come from the operating budgets of the four university divisions that offer programs at the center.
However, money for the facility's computer, audio-visual and lab equipment will come from donations from private business, Amir says, stressing that the further expansion of the campus is reliant on the input of local businesses.
For example, although the third building has no defined use as of yet, Amir says it might be a space into which local businesses can expand.
"As we build we are going to ask the community for their input," she adds.
Elke Franke, assistant dean and director of Part-time Graduate Programs, says that one of the main reasons for the enrollment increase is that more people are returning to school to keep current with rapidly changing technology as well as for personal enrichment.
Since the Montgomery campus is in the heart of the high-tech business district, says Franke, it's important that the center have a symbiotic relationship with nearby companies. Already, many of the students taking information technology and biotechnology courses come from firms located nearby.
"One of the things politicians say again and again is that Maryland doesn't have the high-tech work force needed for companies to relocate here," Franke says. The new building will help train more people for work in these high-tech fields, she adds.
It's hoped that the first-floor coffeehouse, an idea initiated by local firms, will become a meeting place for both students and professionals, who will come to share ideas and have informal meetings.
"We want to be the intellectual center of the Shady Grove area," Amir says. "It will be a place where people can make business deals, plug in their laptop" and enjoy some good food.