Moving forward: UA board OKs new facilities in Soldotna, Anchorage

Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011

With the University of Alaska board of regents authorizing additional planning and traffic analysis on the Seawolf Sports Arena in Anchorage Feb. 18, it's easy to overlook another project that, while smaller, is important to staff and students at a Kenai River college.

Officials and students at Kenai Peninsula College's Kenai River campus in Soldotna say the approval of $14.5 million for a new career and technical education center will bring adequate-but-aging facilities up to modern industry standards.

The center will largely service students studying fields related to the movement of liquids. In Alaska, the oil industry is where such students go to find work, but in other states anything from liquid plastic to water can be transported in the same way.

"I've been at (Kenai Peninsula College) for the entire program, and I definitely can see the need for additional room," said Chelsea Kaas, a 24-year-old two-year student at the campus who graduates in May.

While the campus gets fewer students than its bigger brother in Anchorage - across its two campuses, two extension sites and its online component, KPC had 2,323 students enrolled in the spring 2011 semester, according to the college - demand for the existing facilities is beginning to become more than the school can handle, Kaas said.

"You get small amounts (of time) with the big ... process water and circulation simulation that they have there, but definitely, as much (space) as they can have is going to be good," Kaas said.

The 15,000-square-foot building, which will sit on the eastern side of the campus, will facilitate three workshops.

Each of the shops will feature equipment meant to be utilized by students involved in process technology, industrial process instrumentation and electronics programs.

Allen Houtz, a professor at KPC, said that while the current facilities are adequate, some of the equipment is "nearing the end of its useful life."

"The bulk of the equipment that we use for process technology has been built using what I would call cast-off equipment from industry, so it's pretty much not at the cutting edge by any means," Houtz said.

The largest shop will house a simulator that allows students to practice directing and separating flows of water, featuring tanks and separators. While students will likely transport more hazardous materials in their careers, the simulator allows them to safely practice the craft.

While the simulator currently housed at the school is adequate, the new one will feature more modern industrial instrumentation, Houtz said, and will link to a modern computer-based distributed control system.

"That will be the largest single facility in this new building," Houtz said.

Another of the shops will focus on electronic equipment, and will feature everything from programmable logic controllers and electronic circuit simulators to electronic processor instruments.

Depending on how the funding for the building is allocated in future phases of planning, somewhere between nine and 12 student workstations, with two students working in each station, will be installed in the shop.

Houtz refers to the third shop as the "mechanical device shop," and it will allow students to work with and maintain pneumatic equipment, meaning equipment that is used to contain and utilize pressurized gas in industrial applications.

Devices at the shop will include valves and actuators, Houtz said.

Additionally, classrooms with SMART Boards, which are basically digital whiteboards that allow for enhanced interactivity, will be housed in the facility along with offices, student commons and a computer laboratory.

The classroom space will allow the teaching of occupational safety and health courses, though the exact number of classrooms that will be available is not yet know, Houtz said.

The classes would focus on training students to "manage the correct training (and) personal protective equipment for the workforce," Houtz said.

The commons will provide much-needed space for students to study, Houtz said.

"Right now, a lot of our students study for these classes in our shop facilities. We're hoping to have a separate area that would be more comfortable for use by the students," Houtz said.

The money for the center came from a $397.2 million education bond package. Houtz cautioned that the school's ambitions for the new facility might be tempered by limits on spending.

"If you were to carefully ponder all of the different things I said we wanted, and then kind of make a shot at how many square feet you need, I think you end up with a number probably somewhat in excess of the $14.5 million," Houtz said.

As to whether the University of Alaska would be willing to pony up more funding for the project, Houtz said the likelihood is low.

"I can tell you that the university's budgets have not been rich in the last couple of years," Houtz said.

The funding is also expected to cover repurposing of the 5,000 square feet that will be vacated in favor of the new facility. This will free up space for programs like nursing, art and paramedicine, according to a press release from the school.

According to school officials, the board of regents will be asked to approve a schematic design in September. The project is expected to go to bid in March 2012, and the contract will be awarded the following April.

Construction is expected to begin in May of that year, and its expected completion date is sometime in August 2013.

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