The University of Southern Mississippi celebrated the opening of the new $16.1-million Marine Education Center (MEC) Monday with a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory’s (GCRL) Cedar Point site in Ocean Springs.
“This facility is the crown jewel of marine education at USM,” said Dr. Monty Graham, Director for the USM School of Ocean Science and Technology (SOST). “I have been to many marine laboratories around the world. The MEC is by far the best of all of them. It will catapult us far ahead of some very prestigious marine education powerhouses.”
The new facility is situated on 100 acres and serves as the education and outreach arm of the GCRL and provides an immersion experience for participants in a unique, coastal setting.
“This facility stands as a one-of-a-kind development,” said MEC Director Chris Snyder. “It is a great example of ecologically responsible design.”
Lake Flato Architects, located in San Antonio, Texas, were contracted to lead the journey of designing a new state-of-the-art facility that would model the principles of coastal stewardship. The MEC was conceptualized as a place where visitors would “come and do” instead of “come and see.” In order to fulfill this, architects designed the site to fully utilize the surrounding area and the bevy of habitats it contained. The six buildings located on the site were created to look as though they were a part of the natural environment, tucked under the existing tree canopy and nestled in the natural landscape.
“We have tried to set an example of how to work with nature rather than working against it,” Snyder said. “We set out to be a teaching example for thousands of young students who will come here to learn about the science surrounding our coastal environment and how to be effective stewards of it.”
The MEC replaces the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center, formally located on Point Cadet in Biloxi, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Following Katrina, the MEC relocated to the GCRL Halstead site in Ocean Springs.
“Post-Hurricane Katrina, the Marine Education Center operated out of a converted house on the GCRL Halstead location a few miles away,” said Gordon Cannon, USM Vice President for Research. “But not anymore – today, we officially welcome the MEC home. And with this ribbon cutting, we are closing the University’s chapter on Hurricane Katrina recovery projects.”
The new facility is wind- and flood-resilient and energy-efficient, serving as an example of sustainable and effective coastal building techniques in harmony with its coastal environment.
The new MEC includes public exhibits, laboratories, and meeting spaces, as well as outdoor learning experiences featuring trails, outdoor and floating classrooms, and a pedestrian suspension bridge. Through its broad array of programs, the MEC offers both students and the public an understanding of how the Gulf of Mexico affects daily life and provides a science-based understanding of ecosystem health.
“While this is truly a beautiful facility inside and out, its real beauty can be found in how well it is designed to perform its primary function: educating students and the public about Mississippi’s valuable and productive marine and coastal habitats and resources,” Snyder said. “Tens of thousands of students, visitors and coastal residents will come here to learn the science-based information they need to be good stewards of our marine environment.”
The $16.1 million complex was constructed primarily with funding from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, administered by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. Outdoor trails were made possible by a grant from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Nature Heritage Area; the outdoor kitchen was made possible by Blossman Gas.