October 27, 2013

THEODORA KALIKOW: Remember that 1950s chemistry lab? Maine university still has it.

Theodora Kalikow

Once upon a time, when the Earth’s crust was barely cool, I was a junior in high school and it was time for chemistry class. I was wild about atoms and molecules and now, at last, I was going to learn formally about them.

So my pals (the science geeks) and I bounded up to the top floor of the old Swampscott High School and confronted The Chemistry Classroom.

 It was romantic and darkly mysterious, and it smelled funny. The Periodic Table of the Elements above the dusty blackboard went up to Element 101(predicted). And beyond the tablet desks in neat rows: The Lab.

It was state of the art, 1956. Brown wooden cabinets. Black countertops with the finish already somewhat eaten by — what? Glary lights. Mysterious pipes. Scaly soapstone sinks. Bunsen burners. Huge (10-gallon) jugs of distilled water. Beakers, test tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, stirring rods, tweezers, pipettes, cylinders full of chemical solutions.

This room likely held some acid that would eat right through the floor, and possibly right down to the center of the Earth, if we could only find it. Soon, we’d know. We imagined bubbling horrors that we would learn to concoct all by ourselves.

And then, there was our teacher. The keeper of the lab. Enos Held, an Army veteran (we speculated about which army he’d been in), kept a wooden fraternity paddle handy and threatened us with it if we didn’t pay attention.

We got aprons. We got lab notebooks, with the pages sewn in and speckled black and white hard covers. I wish I could say we got eye protectors, but I don’t remember any.

We found out which container held sulfuric acid. We would die if we misused these dangerous substances. We would be rewarded with safe and spectacular explosions if we learned. We learned and got burning magnesium, flaming sodium, even a Thermite pyrotechnic display — countertop fireworks. Talk about effective motivation!

I’m happy to say we all survived, and most of my high school science pals ended up in science-related careers — at least one engineer, a physicist, a physician, a dentist, a nurse and a chemist.

That lab, however, is long gone. They built a new high school in Swampscott in the 1960s, and they may have even renovated it again more recently.

Don’t worry, though, I’m here to tell you that time travel is real. It’s the summer of 2012, and I’m being shown around University of Southern Maine, my new gig. We enter a chemistry lab. There is a Periodic Table of the Elements on the wall — now up to 118 elements. Those physicists have been busy! The blackboards are now white. Therefore, scientific conclusion: Time has passed.

But look around — everything else is the same! Maybe it’s really 1956 again! The brown wooden cabinets! The scarred black countertops! The glary lights! The scaly sinks! Cue the weird music: Doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo ...

Which is why we have a bond issue vote coming up very soon — on Nov. 5. A “yes” vote on Question 2 would provide $15.5 million for necessary science teaching lab upgrades across the University of Maine System.

USM would get $4 million to address our vintage teaching labs that are overdue for upgrades. In all our USM locations, for example, in Lewiston-Auburn, Gorham and Portland, we have teaching lab facilities that are in need of repair, or subject to expensive failure, and with outdated equipment. More than 3,000 students at USM alone, in a range of disciplines, use these labs every year.

Similar bonds are on the ballot for Maine Maritime Academy and the Maine Community College System.

In Maine, employment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related fields is growing. Health-related professions such as nursing and occupational therapy are in high demand.

We need to keep making the investments in state-of-the-art science learning environments such as the ones my pals and I benefited from so many years ago.

Maine students deserve these opportunities. They will be the key players in the economy of today and tomorrow, and a yes vote on Question 2 will serve them and our state. Our legislators and our governor have endorsed this bond and sent it to us, the voters, for our action. It’s our turn.

Enough with time travel into the past. Let’s help our students and our state travel into the future. Yes on Question 2!



Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at kalikow@usm.maine.edu.

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