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The Durham Science Center: Theory Put Into Practice

by Charles Reed

The Durham Science Center is a fixture in the Omaha community in more ways than one. Not only does it house a planetarium and a traveling chemistry lab, both used by dozens of schools around the state, but it is the central hub for the very popular "Aim for the Stars" camp, providing a math-and-science based summer camp for middle-schoolers, that has been in operation since 1998. Here on campus, it is home to several departments including Math, Physics, Geology/Geography and Chemistry.

However, all of these departments had a long life before the introduction of the Durham Science Center. Most of them were once taught at UNO’s original location at 24th and Pratt Streets in what is now the transition point between Midtown and Downtown and then moved to other buildings around campus, until, in 1985, work began on what is now the Durham Science Center – located just to the west of the Criss Library.

durhamsciencecenter

Even though the building began to build its structural foundations in 1985, the conceptual foundations for the Durham Science Center had begun 10 years prior in 1975. While UNO had a solidified six-year plan for westward expansion of the campus, money wasn’t readily available in the late 70s to spearhead the project despite the purchase of several homes in what is now the far-west portion of the Dodge Street Campus.

Then-Chancellor Del Weber pushed for funding again in late 1981 and early 1982 to purchase land west of campus as a necessary step before construction could start on the science building. He ran into opposition, however, from Frances Batt, president of the Citizens Action Association, who said allocation of funding would be better served with a high-rise parking structure south of the Arts and Sciences Building instead of continuing westward expansion.

While this was being decided, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences voiced his opinion, saying that starting construction was "critical" due to the temporary annexes located east of the Arts and Sciences Building not only being not exactly the best atmosphere for learning, but also not exactly being in the best atmosphere for learning, but also not exactly being in the best shape either.

durhamsciencecenter

However, other politicians, like former Senator Bob Kerrey, indicated that UNO students were more interested in increased parking space than increased classroom space. It was a clash that would continue on through all of 1982 and almost all of 1983 until, in November, the Board of Regents approved the purchase and acquisition of 12 properties on the west end of campus. Soon after, the Nebraska legislature approved funding for a new building to house the various science departments – although not without some lingering issues to be sorted out.

Ground broke on the new building on September 19, 1985 with numerous guests in attendance and, by February, the foundations of the Durham Science Center were clearly visible and a welcome sight to many administrators and faculty on campus who had pushed for the building over the past decade. The progress was even more evident by September of that year, with the building’s recognizable glass facade erected and readily available for photo opportunities.

Another visually-arresting element to the soon-to-be Durham Science Center was a series of holograms commissioned for $28,000 from Doug Tyler, an artist from South Bend, Ind – these very same holograms still remain in the main atrium of the building today.

durhamsciencecenter

Finally, after over a decade of theorizing and hypothesizing about how to build a new lab sciences facility on campus, in June 1987, the Lab Sciences Building opened and was ready for its first full course load at the beginning of the fall semester several months later.

In September, the building was dedicated and given a new name: The Durham Science Center after Charles and Margre Durham who had helped spearhead UNO’s "Diamond Jubilee" campaign which celebrated the university’s 75th anniversary and lasted for five years – securing funds for, among other things, the Durham Science Center and a new parking structure on the east side of campus.

Since it’s completion and dedication, the Durham Science Center has seen many of the students in the Aim for the Stars camp or its hundreds of planetarium shows, grow up to choose UNO and take classes in the very building that awed them as children. The building has also been home to labs and research space that have led to several hundred publications, more conferences and those same students becoming teachers or scientists working in the field. Even today, the next great scientific mind who will change the world as we know it could be walking the halls of the Durham Science Center at UNO.

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