It will be all labs all the time for students — at least in one new modern building at Montana Tech.

The $10-million Natural Resources Research Center (NRRC) promises to shed light on what goes on behind closed doors in cryptic laboratories.

Gone are the old-school layouts of labyrinthine hallways, classrooms, and labs that dominate the older buildings on campus, like the science and engineering, Main Hall, and chemistry and biology mainstays.

Gone are any offices, too, in the NRRC.

The 31,000-square-foot, open-concept architectural design allows students to congregate, collaborate, and confer. Huge interior and exterior windows showcase only student labs, where visitors and engineering students of all stripes can see and be seen.

“The idea is to have open concepts and visuals,” said Joe McClafferty, vice chancellor of Development and University Relations and president of the Montana Tech Foundation, the fundraising arm of the university. “It doesn’t look like anything else we have on campus.”

The versatile spaces, like a Student Project Lab area, allow for more student collaboration for individuals and groups.

“You can actually see what they’re doing through the windows,” said Amanda Badovinac, Tech marketing and public relations director.

“The atrium basically becomes hallway space,” McClafferty added.

Even student welders will see the light of day with new equipment and a higher profile.

Doug Abbott, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at Tech, said the new high-tech welding labs will accommodate welding majors from Highlands College, which will keep its 15 traditional welding booths and eight aerospace welding booths on its south campus.

“Those (NRRC) labs support the Highlands College welding program,” added Abbott. Currently, the north campus has 12 welding engineering majors. Highlands has 27 in machining/welding and six enrolled in aerospace.

Recruiting more students to Tech is high on the list of why the building went up, as Tech officials work hard to keep the tiny engineering college up to date with technology.

In conjunction with the recently revealed renderings of a new $24-million multipurpose building, the Student Success Center, officials want to continue to bolster Tech’s image and draw students. McClafferty said recently it’s important that Tech maintain its status in the increasingly competitive world of petroleum and other engineering fields.

“We thought it would be a good selling point,” said McClafferty, taking in the enticing south-facing vistas from an upstairs birds-eye view.

Rob Smith, Tech construction manager who has worked with Sletten Construction for the past two years on the project, said furniture and lab equipment — some of it cutting edge and technical — will be moved in gradually from the Engineering Lab/Classroom Building, Science and Engineering Building, and Engineering Hall.

Smith said NRRC is a “Green Globes building,” meaning energy-efficient LED lighting, reflective windows, and a Green Globe sustainability certification.

McClafferty, leading a recent tour, said specialized equipment will be moved in for mechanical, civil, and petroleum engineering majors, including cutting-edge nanoscience, energy, and fluids labs.

“Anything the basic engineering students go through, we’ll have in here,” he said.

Occupational Safety and Health majors will have lab space and an unconventional climbing area with ladders and harnesses for climbing safety simulations.

“There’s nothing like the practice climbing area out there,” added McClafferty, who toured several other safety, mining, and engineering colleges to help with site planning.

Another cutting-edge space is a Composite Testing Room upstairs that will enable students and instructors to use renewable woods.

Funding for the NRRC was secured through a $5-million allocation from the 2013 Montana Legislature and a $5-million private match provided by ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, and Anadarko — private companies that make their mark on the campus and in return get an ongoing supply of Tech graduates to feed their industry pipeline.

A few labs will be running the first week of school when spring semester classes start Jan. 9. Bit by bit, labs will start up, but the building will be completely open to students later in spring semester, said Badovinac.

McClafferty anticipates holding a campus open house in February then a public grand opening in March.

Officials envision the atrium and open meeting rooms as a sort of “recreation center,” too, for students between lab assignments.

“We’ll pretty it up,” cracked McClafferty. “We’ll show those kids how fun it can be to be an engineer.”

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Education Reporter who also covers features at The Montana Standard, I am a Cascade-Ulm-Great Falls native. Originally a sports writer, I wrote for the Missoulian and the Great Falls Tribune. I freelanced for The Seattle Times and other NW publications.

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