Artist rendering Fraser Hall lab and collaboration space

University of Minnesota requests funding for new chemistry teaching labs

Renovated building will provide 18 active learning labs plus student collaboration spaces

When the chemistry labs in Smith Hall first opened at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States and World War I was on the cusp of starting in Europe. Flash forward more than 100 years and the same labs are still being used for teaching chemistry, even though the way chemistry is taught has completely changed in recent decades.

“Years ago, we used almost a ‘cookbook-type’ method to teach chemistry where students would follow a recipe. Now we teach students to think and solve problems using chemistry,” said Professor David Blank, head of the University of Minnesota Department of Chemistry. “Students tell us over and over how extraordinary our professors are, but how frustrated they are with the limitations of the old labs.”

To fix this problem, the University of Minnesota is requesting $72 million from the 2022 Minnesota State Legislature to renovate the 95-year-old Fraser Hall across the street from Smith Hall to create a 117,000-square-foot modern chemistry teaching laboratory building.

The new teaching labs will serve more than 5,000 students each semester from every college on the Twin Cities campus. Students in these chemistry courses represent a wide range of majors, and roughly a third of all students who attend the University of Minnesota Twin Cities will take chemistry courses using these labs.

This renovation will provide 18 active learning laboratories—serving high-demand chemistry courses—with space for lab preparation, academic support, and collaborative learning. $3.3 million in funding for building design was provided in the 2020 bonding bill approved by the Legislature during a special session.

Renovated and new spaces will include: 

  • Seven general chemistry teaching labs
  • Four life sciences chemistry teaching labs
  • Seven organic chemistry teaching labs
  • Student collaboration and prep space
  • Tutoring and informal student gathering space
  • Renovated general purpose classrooms

Department of Chemistry administrator Chuck Tomlinson said collaboration in the lab has become a much bigger part of the learning process because of the way classes are taught today compared to when students’ parents and grandparents took chemistry classes.

“We have students sitting in hallways trying to do work for their lab classes,” Tomlinson said. “With the renovation, students will easily be able to go back and forth between the collaboration space and lab and interact with their teaching assistant the entire time.”

Chemistry labs 1932 and 2019
These side-by-side photos show the chemistry teaching labs in 1932 and today. Modern chemistry labs are needed to keep up with today's teaching methods that include more problem-solving and collaboration.

The project will remove circa-1954 building additions, renovate the remaining existing 1928 Fraser Hall, and construct a new addition. The total project cost will be $113 million with the University covering costs not funded by the State of Minnesota. If approved by the Legislature, construction could start as soon as this summer with the new building opening to students in fall 2024.

“This project is truly shovel-ready and could have a major impact,” Blank said. “Our chemistry classes teach students from majors in healthcare to food science to agriculture and much more. We’re training the next generation of science and technology workers in Minnesota. Our state’s high-tech future depends on their success.”

To see more images and learn more about the project, visit the Fraser Hall-Chemistry Undergraduate Teaching Renovation and Addition website.

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