LAKELAND, Fla. - The curiously oval-shaped structure at the new Florida Polytechnic University, designed by noted Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is a symbol of the state's latest higher-education experiment.
It is the centerpiece of what will soon-be Florida's 12th state university and the only one dedicated almost exclusively to producing science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, degrees.
Adorned with curved awnings and a roof that adjusts with the sun's angle, the 162,000-square foot, $60 million Innovation, Science and Technology building will house the school's laboratories, classrooms, auditoriums and other meeting rooms. It is the perfect symbol of a university built with the Silicon Valley-type industry in mind.
Florida Polytechnic's opening will end nearly three years of political squabbling that culminated with the former satellite school's separation from the University of South Florida in 2012. It also clears the way for its lofty goal of drawing industry to Florida's technology core through research and business partnerships including Microsoft, Lockheed Martin and Harris Corp.
With early challenges like recruiting students, no immediate accreditation and no tenure for professors, the school's viability is still a question. It will open with 500 students, less than half the 1,200 it eventually needs.
"Starting something from scratch is a good thing, not a bad thing," said President Randy Avent. "We know we have some big challenges ahead of us."
Opposition was swift when the idea was first broached for USF Polytechnic to separate into an independent university. It seemed radical to USF officials because other universities in the state already offered STEM studies.
But it got a boost in 2012 when President Barack Obama set a national goal of increasing the number of undergraduates receiving STEM degrees by 1 million by 2025.
Florida's "STEM gap" is well-documented. According to figures released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 9 percent of Florida workers between ages 25 and 64 worked in science, technology, engineering and math jobs. Another 12 percent were in related fields, like architecture or health care management.
Only four other states had lower rates.
Political nudging by then-local state Sen. JD Alexander led to legislation that Gov. Rick Scott signed in April 2012 to create Florida Polytechnic. It included $33 million in transfer funding from USF and a strict set of benchmarks that FPU must achieve by Dec. 31, 2016. Those include completing facilities and infrastructure; achieving accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; developing new programs; and attaining full-time enrollment of at least 1,200.
The influence exerted by Alexander, then the Senate budget chair, led to charges of political overreach, which he denied. Alexander, who left the Senate because of term limits, didn't return messages left by The Associated Press.
Former USF trustee Gene Engle, long a vocal opponent, said he's left those sentiments in the past and hopes it succeeds.
"They have accomplished a lot in short period of time," he said. "They have a lot of work to do, but have the necessary components to open up and have a workable university."
FPU's land and construction cost is more than $120 million. It will open its doors with only a handful of buildings.
State University System of Florida board member Dean Colson applauded the progress, but said there are still concerns.
"I remain skeptical about whether spending $30 million a year and $120 million in capital improvements is the best way to produce 500 to 1,000 STEM degrees a year. For that that amount of money, other universities could have done it much cheaper," he said.
What FPU doesn't have yet in real estate, it makes up for with technology. Inside the IST building will be equipment like 3D printers and state-of-the-art labs.
Freshman-to-be Joshua Watkins got his first peek a few weeks ago.
"I was just fascinated by the architecture and amount of light the building lets it," he said. "Lecture halls were very different, but extremely nice. So just think, when you walk in the building it looks like Star Trek."