Science Labs at SDSU, Like Most Across U.S., Aging and in Disrepair

Times Staff Writer

Piled in cardboard boxes in a storage room of San Diego State University's Life Sciences Building, two mounds of coffee cans symbolize an educational crisis creeping up on SDSU and undergraduate science, math and engineering departments at universities around the country.

The coffee cans are test tube holders, pressed into service for SDSU's microbiology students by a department that lacks money to supply all of them with the stainless steel racks that are a mainstay of freshman laboratory courses everywhere.

They are just a tiny part of a continuing deterioration in laboratory and instructional equipment that is threatening the quality of science, math and engineering courses at American colleges and universities, according to SDSU President Thomas Day.

Day is part of the National Science Board, a policy-making panel of the National Science Foundation, which has completed a study detailing the "serious deficiencies" in math, science and engineering instruction in the United States. The failings, the report concludes, ultimately could threaten the country's economy and its security.

"This country--and its position in the world--depends very heavily on its being on the front edge of science and engineering," Day said in a recent briefing with reporters. "The country is in very serious trouble in this regard."

The report, written after the National Science Board heard testimony from academics and experts from around the country, concludes that three aspects of education in those fields require the gravest concern: laboratory instruction, faculty preparation and courses and curricula.

Uninspired faculty are teaching boring courses to students in laboratories "with instruments that are obsolete and inadequate," the report concludes. U.S. universities need $2 billion to $4 billion in new instruments alone, it adds. At some campuses, educators are beginning to eliminate courses because they lack the laboratory equipment needed to teach them.

W. Edward Lear, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, said two recent studies show that most of the nation's 290 engineering laboratories are reaching a critical juncture after a decade of deterioration that began in the mid-1970s, when enrollments and state aid declined sharply.

"The backlog of equipment needs has been established at $2 billion in engineering labs across the country," he said. "And it's pretty universal."

SDSU and the other 18 California State University campuses are in the same shape, said Anthony Moye, the state system's associate vice chancellor for educational programs and resources. But SDSU, which is larger than the rest, has more equipment in need of repair, he said.

A tour of the labs on Day's own campus shows how embarrassingly accurate such statements are.

In the College of Sciences, which contains half the university's equipment, most of the 300 microscopes, scales and pH meters used in lower-level courses are 20 to 25 years old, as are many centrifuges, incubators and refrigerators. Fully 46% of the college's 10,000 pieces of equipment are more than 20 years old, according to a review of the college.

An antiquated apparatus for counting bacteria colonies consists of an electric light, a grid and a magnifying glass. Modern counters use sensitive electric probes and digital readouts.

Some water baths date from 1967 and are losing the ability to maintain constant temperature--their main laboratory function.

The problem is not that such equipment doesn't work, said Dean Donald Short. It just doesn't work well. And it is a far cry from the state-of-the-art technology Short wants for his students.

"If California wasn't in competition with every other state and every other country in the world, we could take a relaxed, 1950s attitude toward this," Short said. "But I'm being told to train that labor force in the beginning years with equipment that's 25 years old.

"I think that's a handicap I don't need. And I think that's a handicap the students don't need."

In the College of Engineering, where 40% to 50% of the equipment is more than 25 years old, the labs may be in worse shape. The mechanical engineering division has one working diesel engine, a 35-year-old model that includes none of the facets of modern engines. A second diesel engine is beyond repair and may be sold for scrap.

Metallurgical engineering students use a 35-year-old metallograph, an apparatus that examines cell structures and cracks in metal with a microscope and camera. Some of the microscope lenses are broken, but the equipment is so old that replacement parts are unavailable.

A vacuum furnace is 20 years old. A shaker, which subjects various structures to vibrations, is 25 years old.

"My students will get all the knowledge they need . . . " said Nihad Hussain, associate dean of engineering. "The piston, the chamber, the crankshaft are all the same. But the modern things are missing. Students who graduate from here will never see those engines again."

Private industry pays to bring those graduates up to date, Lear said. "It just means that people are not trained and don't get their basic look at the type equipment that they're going to use when they get out into industry," he said.

All told, SDSU's College of Sciences, where 4,548 students major in some scientific discipline, needs more than $17 million to bring its equipment up to date, Short has calculated. The Engineering College, which has about 2,800 student majors, needs about $2.9 million, nearly $1.8 million of it for the mechanical engineering department alone, Hussain said.

All is not bleak at either college. Upper-level and faculty-research labs in the sciences are well-stocked with equipment. Short, who recently hired a new immunology professor who will start in January, is spending more than $85,000 to outfit his lab with basic equipment.

Thanks largely to donations from private industry, the engineering college has dozens of up-to-date computers, including a $2 million system on which students learn computer-aided design.

In both colleges, faculty supplement state-provided equipment with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment provided by federal grants. Both colleges hustle gifts and donations, often in the form of discounts on badly-needed machinery.

California lottery revenue this year provided the CSU system a one-time $7-million infusion of cash for equipment and a new state budgeting system should keep CSU campuses from falling farther behind, Moye said.

But undergraduate education is suffering. Forced to engage in a form of equipment triage, the departments have adopted different strategies. In the science college, entry-level students are given the obsolete equipment. As they progress through the curriculum, they work with increasingly better equipment.

In engineering, which enrolls only a fraction of the students who want to attend, lower-level students can learn basic principles even though they suffer from a lack of laboratory space and equipment, Hussain said.

Without sophisticated technology, it is the graduate student who feels the pinch the most, Hussain said. "He cannot do any experimental work. He cannot do research on improving the performance of a diesel engine when you're dealing with a piece of junk to begin with."

Bad timing and inadequate state finances are the culprits in the equipment decline, experts agree. Both SDSU departments started to develop in the 1950s, during the nation's post-World War II boom in science education.

But as equipment started to deteriorate in the mid-1970s, computer sciences and biotechnology began to develop as disciplines, and Short was forced to spend his money there.

"Here at SDSU, we view ourselves as a regional university, and we view our mission as producing the labor force for our region," Short said. "Go over to the Sorrento Valley, and you'll see computers and biotech.'

Then came Proposition 13 in 1978, precipitating a sharp four-year decline in state funding for equipment. Only in the past two years has that been reversed. Short's 1985-86 equipment budget topped $600,000, up from about $275,000 in 1983-84. Hussain's 1985-86 budget was $172,000, up from about $90,000 in 1981-82. The engineering college also received about $100,000 from a special state fund last year.

But beyond the control of either man is the rapid advance of technology in the computer age. Aerospace technology undergoes tremendous changes every five to ten years, and the electrical engineering field advances virtually every day, Hussain said. In the last five years, there has been a revolution in knowledge about cooling the powerful microchips that are integral to today's computers, he said.

The National Science Board report recommends that the National Science Foundation spend $100 million to spur the improvement of instruction and equipment, $50 million of it on laboratory development and instructional equipment.

But the health of the nation's science, engineering and math departments is up to the states and municipalities that fund higher education, the report warns.

"Most of the direct effort to reverse the downtrends of quality in undergraduate mathematics, engineering and science education must be made at the state and local levels of government and in the private sector," the report concluded. "Those are the places where educational policy is made and the basic financial support for higher education is marshaled."

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