Amarillo College unveiled their nearly 12,000-square-foot STEM Research Center Thursday at their Van Buren St. campus. The laboratory and greenhouse space will provide students with researched based, hands-on programs.

"There's a lot of people that aren't science people and that's OK, but they're not because usually they had a bad experience when they were younger," said Claudie Biggers, AC biology department chairwoman. "We wanted to attract those students back to science, take those things out that intimidated them and replace them with things that would excite them."

These STEM students will study hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics to learn about plant growth and diseases through trial and error; they will have access to cutting edge equipment such as fluorescence microscopes for live cell imaging and gas chromatographs for soil and plant analysis.

The idea for the center evolved from an project for edible landscaping through AC's partnership with High Plains Food Bank and was made possible thanks to a $4.9 million Hispanic-Serving Institution-STEM Grant. AC was one of 14 colleges nationwide to win the grant in 2016 from the US Department of Education.

"Our project is really unique compared to anybody else's that won the award. It is bringing the community together -- a lot of different entities that you wouldn't expect to come together," Biggers said.

Certifications can be earned in as quickly as a six months and also apply toward credits needed for a two-year degree.

"We infused the certificate with courses that would go towards an associate's degree," Biggers said. "We're trying to find a method to build their confidence ... but through a way of using the research where they are putting their hands in the dirt."

The research facility will also be used to help students take online courses at Texas Tech University or the University of Texas at Arlington and complete lab work in the center, working toward their four-year degree.

"Our faculty drove this project, they're committed to helping our students experience science and our workforce partners have helped define it," said AC President, Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart. "This will allow our students as freshmen to engage in research that produces drought resistant seeds and insect resistant seeds that can give our crop management in the panhandle longevity that will help all of us."

Lowery-Hart said he expects to certify 30-40 students from the new center by the end of the year.

"We have talked to a lot of employers who need students with skill sets in horticulture, agronomy, earth sciences and life sciences," he said. "The business community will determine more than anybody how many students actually use the facility, based on the demands they have for employment."

In the fall, AC rolled out their new horticulture program; additionally, biotechnology, environmental science, and sustainable resource programs are in various stages of development.

"We're teaching sustainable resources for the future ... and it will revolutionize a lot of our grow times," Biggers said. "We can start developing and teaching ... of how we can provide more food for more people in less space."