Starting Something Together: Campus Partners Celebrate Opening of BioCommons, Located in Steenbock Library

January 26, 2015

IMG_4204After years of planning, a new learning space for students is a reality. The remodeled BioCommons, located on the lower level of Steenbock Library, is officially open. While this unique space is available to all students, it aims to provide a welcoming home base for bioscience students across campus to connect with each other, and serve as a compass to explore the opportunities and resources available at UW–Madison.

There are spaces to study, relax, meet, hold an event, advise/mentor, tutor, collaborate, and find information. Thanks to student organizations, there will also be living walls filled with plants and a planted aquarium. “We’re starting to call the lower level of Steenbock the Garden Level,” quips Jessica Newman, Steenbock Library’s Undergraduate Services Librarian.

The BioCommons is an ongoing cross-campus collaboration, with Steenbock Library, WISCIENCE, and the Office of Undergraduate Advising as the founding partners. Other campus offices and student groups are shaping the BioCommons by bringing events, services, and other projects to the space.IMG_4197

“We started off the project with town hall meetings,” recalls Lisa Wettleson, Interim Director of Steenbock. “The campus community gave us some terrific ideas, many of which have been incorporated into the physical space. We have also taken advantage of the insights other libraries have gained about connecting with campus programs. There is so much potential to work together and increase our impact.”

With nearly 25 percent of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduates studying varying areas of bioscience, in departments spread across six schools/colleges, it can be difficult for students to find a central location to connect. The BioCommons will provide a gateway where students can find out about the wide array of opportunities on campus, as well as a venue where programs across campus can offer biology-related services and events and collaborate in new ways.

“For first-year students, first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities, there are often extra challenges in navigating the campus landscape, building community, and finding places to hook in,” points out Janet Branchaw, Director of WISCIENCE. “At WISCIENCE, we have found that if we design projects and programs with those populations in mind, what we end up with is useful to all students. That has been our approach to creating a BioCommons that is for everyone.”

IMG_4200The BioCommons showcases an open and inviting lounge, collaborative booths, semi-private spaces for student services, study rooms, and a large multi-purpose space with projection capabilities. Undergraduate peer leaders will staff an information desk, and displays of flyers and handouts about biology opportunities across campus will help students find activities and resources. A set of online resources around beyond-the-classroom opportunities, initially created by cross-campus teams, is being developed into an online BioCommons at

The evolution of the BioCommons will be influenced by the students and the campus community that use the space and help shape its resources. Campus partners say it will only enhance their ability to connect bioscience students with opportunities and services. Over the past year, numerous pilot events and services have been held in the space, from pre-health advising to undergraduate research peer mentoring.

IMG_4193“We have already been involved in creating some new collaborative advising events for the BioCommons,” affirms Wren Singer, Director of Undergraduate Advising. “The space provides the opportunity to bring together advisors from a variety of specialties to help students make the most of their bioscience undergraduate experience. In addition, it is nice to bring the advisors to the students, rather than asking students to make multiple trips to see advisors with different specializations.”

Campus units offering biology-related programming are invited to reserve BioCommons spaces and take advantage of BioCommons publicity support. To learn more, visit the BioCommons in Steenbock Library, or visit You can also email