Here’s how Western wants to meet need for increased student interest in STEM classes

Western Washington University announced Thursday that it is attempting to raise $20 million by September to help fund a new building on the Bellingham campus and expand its specialized programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“Two of the most important goals in Western’s strategic plan are advancing inclusive student success and increasing Western’s impact in Washington,” Western President Sabah Randhawa said in a release Thursday, Nov. 7. “Preparing more graduates for successful careers in the state’s high-need STEM fields satisfies both objectives at once and demonstrates our commitment to serving the needs of the state, our students and the public good.”

The state legislature has already granted $2 million for pre- and partial-design work for the project, according to WWU’s “Building Washington’s Future” website. The state will provide another $46 million for design and construction in the next budget cycle if the WWU Foundation can raise $20 million in private capital campaign pledges to help fund construction.

Western already is scheduled to begin construction on a four-story, 50,000-square foot Interdisciplinary Science Building near the current biology building in January to add lab and classroom space. But that building does not provide enough space to support advanced technology-related programs, the campaign website said.

The Advanced Technology Engineering and Computer Science building would provide space for enhanced programs in computer science, electrical engineering, computer engineering and energy science and technology and reduce bottlenecks in programs, according to the release. It also is hoped it would help Western meet the increasing workforce demand for people with advanced skills in systems engineering and computer science.

“It is a dynamic and exciting time at Western, as we’ve seen a tremendous uptick in student interest and enrollment in our STEM programs during a time when the need for home-grown talent is the greatest it’s ever been,” Brad Johnson, dean of Western’s College of Science and Engineering, said in the release. “Our emphasis on hands-on, authentic learning experiences provides unique opportunities for students and for impact on the region we serve.“

A location for the new building has not yet been decided, project campaign manager Manca Valum told The Bellingham Herald, but the campaign website said the facility “will be in a highly visible location on Western’s main campus.” Valum said it would not be near the new Interdisciplinary Science Building, which is not in a visible location.

The new building will not be part of the Western Crossing Development on the waterfront, Valum said, because the school is committed to keeping its undergraduate programs co-located on the main campus.

If the necessary funds can be raised, Valum said construction on the new building is anticipated to begin in late 2021.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.