President Coker discusses plans for new science center on campus

During a press conference for Maryville College Journalism students last week, MC President Dr. Bryan Coker announced and gave details regarding plans to build a new science center on campus. 

While the project is still in the early stages of planning, the tentatively named Institute for Environmental Education and the Sciences (IEES) is set to expand on what is currently offered in the Sutton Science Center.

“We are planning on building the IEES on the front lawn area of campus, down the hill from Lloyd and Gibson, at the major intersection of Highway 321 and Washington Street,” Coker said. “The building will house the divisions of Natural Sciences, Health Sciences and Outdoor Studies, and Math and Computer Sciences, as well as faculty from the Environmental Studies program. The Institute will also house a center for environmental education.”

For years, the state of Sutton Science Center has been a topic of discussion among MC administrators, Coker said. Structural issues and age have pushed the building to a critical point, and the time has come to decide whether to renovate or replace the facility, constructed in 1968.

According to Coker, over the past few years faculty and staff have debated whether Sutton is worth salvaging. Plans for the building are still undetermined as of now, but if the decision is made to ultimately tear it down, then the area will become a campus green space, Coker added.

“I anticipate we will probably tear down Sutton, but we are not 100% sure on that,” he said. “Regardless, and in addition to the IEES, we plan to build another building in the same vicinity that will house the Division of Behavioral Sciences.” 

Although still in the very early stages of development, the institute will be carbon neutral and serve as an example of environmental sustainability to the region and all who visit. It will be a new, exciting area for students and non-students alike, Coker said. The facility will be open to students and visitors in the area, and will allow Maryville College students to engage with the community, as well as serve as an institute to educate others about Appalachia, its biodiversity, and conservation efforts in the region.

“What we want to happen is that our students are engaged in teaching the next generation there, as well as teaching those who aren’t familiar with the area and its natural history,” he said.

A consultant from Princeton University, Dr. Lars Hedin, will be visiting MC this month to meet with faculty and staff in order to develop connections and initiate the development process. This project is also being supported by Lamar Alexander, former two-term governor of Tennessee and a U.S. senator from 2003 to 2021. The former senator supported The Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law in 2020, which allocated funds to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and worked to improve air quality in the area.

“We have already raised about $5.5 million just to get us started on the planning piece. That’s $5.5 million pledged, meaning people have signed agreements, which helps us pay for the planning,” Coker said.

Although the development is still in a “quiet phase,” Coker said, he hopes that by the spring of 2024, the school will have chosen an architect, and by late 2024, administrators will be able to publicize a more accurate breakdown of costs and figures. The estimated cost, he said, could be anywhere from $50 to $60 million total. If all goes according to plan, the new IEES will be successfully completed in the next three to four years, he added.

“Hopefully [it will be] built in three or four years, but these things take time,” he said. “Construction right now is really difficult; everything costs twice what you think, and it takes twice as long.”

Regarding the physical architecture of the institute, the facility will focus on the natural aspects of the area, incorporate environmentally sustainable elements and emphasize the preservation of the Smokies.

“It’s going to be interesting, because, on one hand, we want it to convey a sense of the landscape and the mountains by just looking at this building,” he said. “I don’t want it to look opposite from other things on campus. It’s kind of like ‘How do we integrate the goal of the landscape and the mountains, with … the classic look of Anderson and Carnegie [Halls]?’ The architecture is going to be a real challenge for us.”

With this new addition to campus, and a focus on the natural environment and biodiversity surrounding MC, the college hopes to extend its reach in the community as an environmental and historic landmark, Coker added. Fundraising efforts for it have taken him to Washington, D.C., where the proposed institute’s potential was a topic of discussion.

“I’ll be honest, the influence of this facility beyond the campus opens up the door for more funding,” he said. “I think we all recognize the need to protect this region and the environment, [and] hopefully it’s something that can transcend the partisanship we are seeing these days.”

Students interested in learning more, Coker said, can contact Dr. Jay Clark, director of environmental and sustainability initiatives at Maryville College.

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