Life on the Taxwatch Turkey List: FSU’s STEM Teaching Lab project awaits Governor Scott’s decision

Update, June 3:  Governor Scott vetoed FSU’s STEM Teaching Lab project yesterday, along with $400 million worth of other projects.  

After each annual session of the Florida Legislature, Florida Taxwatch issues a list of budget line items that the organization argues should be vetoed by the governor because they were not properly vetted or prioritized.  This year’s list includes 111 projects totaling $178 million.  One of those projects is “mine” – FSU’s STEM Teaching Lab building project.  The budget passed by the legislature includes $5 million to begin architectural work on the $43 million project. I served as chair of a committee appointed to do preliminary planning for the project.  But I’ve been advocating for the project on campus since 2008.

Taxwatch included the STEM Teaching Lab project on the Turkey List because the Board of Governors did not include it on the list of high priorities it submitted to the Legislature this year.  The report says, as it does every year, that

The Budget Turkey label does not signify judgment of a project’s worthiness. Instead, the review focuses solely on the Florida budget process, and the purpose of the Budget Turkey label is to ensure that all appropriations using public funds receive the deliberation, debate, and accountability they deserve.

That’s good, because there is no question about the urgent need for the project.  The science and math classroom infrastructure that FSU is presently using is basically thirty years old – dating back to when our institution was considerably smaller.  I opened the deliberations of the planning committee by asking each department in FSU’s Science Area (including mathematical science departments) to submit their teaching facility needs.  Their responses added up to a number of square feet that is triple the planned size of the STEM Teaching Lab building.

With the amount of attention being paid to expanding online offerings in the SUS, a skeptical reader might ask whether we really need physical classrooms to teach science and math.  The short answer – backed up by research – is yes, if our goal is to open access to STEM fields for broader student populations than have traditionally entered those fields.  Interactive engagement pedagogies like that used in FSU’s studio physics program are dramatically more effective in promoting student understanding than traditional lecture courses (or online lecture courses) because they harness the power of social interactions among students and between students and instructors – and that works best when students and instructors are in the same physical space.  The results of a study of this question by online course advocates at MIT are shown below – interactive engagement wins by a mile.


Would interactive engagement pedagogies be emphasized in the new FSU STEM Teaching Lab if it were ever built?  The answer is yes.

But what if the STEM Teaching Lab isn’t built?

Whether or not the project is built, FSU will have to fully utilize its aging science buildings through substantial renovation projects.  One of those projects presently underway – a $250,000 project to make a new 81-seat studio physics classroom out of an old computer lab in the Carothers Building – is shown below.  It will open for business this fall and make it possible to increase the use of interactive engagement pedagogies by the Physics Department and other academic units.


But what our planning committee found is that even if we renovate every square foot of available space, we cannot meet the science and math teaching needs without the new building.

More broadly, no matter what happens to the STEM Teaching Lab proposal, I will come to work every day and do the best job I can for my students with whatever tools I have available.  Most of my colleagues will do the same.  But it would be good for our students if we can do the best job possible.  And for that we will need a new STEM Teaching Lab building.


A studio physics classroom in FSU’s HCB

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