You Call This School? The 25 Coolest College Labs in the Country

Forget algebra homework: try building spaceships, operating a nuclear reactor or listening in to distant galaxies

Forget stuffy lecture halls and humming fluorescent lights. Build robots instead! Or run a nuclear reactor. To rank the coolest labs in the country, we factored in groundbreaking research, undergrad access and sheer awesomeness.

Click here to launch a gallery of the coolest labs in America

Check out the 2011 additions to our list in the articles below, or browse the full set of 25 labs in our image gallery above.

Missouri University of Science and Technology: Experimental Mine
Career: Industrial demolitions Learn to: Blow things up extremely well Students learn how to implode buildings, design fireworks displays, blast smooth slices of stone of quarry walls, run pyrotechnics at rock concerts, and set off special effects fireballs on movie sets. As you might expect, the program's screening process rivals the CIA's. Candidates must submit to an extensive background check, and non-citizens may have to shake hands with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Missouri S&T also offers an MS in explosives engineering, the first formal program of its kind in the country. The focus of an MS ranges from shaped charges, small precision bombs that either slice like a knife or punch holes in metal, to topics like blast mitigation for the military and seismic changes in rock, for better mining. Phone: 573-341-6406 Web site: MST.eduJohn B. Carnett
George Washington University: National Crash Analysis Center
Career: Safety engineer Learn to: Propel a sedan at 60 mph into a roadside planter At the NCAC, every student in the school's transportation-safety graduate program gets a car and instructions to tear it down to piles of nuts and bolts, struts and glass sheets. Then the student rebuilds the vehicle in a computer model so he can virtually crash it again and again. (Students also help with real crash tests.) The lab works with auto manufacturers and the Department of Transportation to inform safety standards for cars and "roadside furniture," such as light poles, barriers and signs. The current curriculum confronts a recent problem on the freeways: the huge population of SUVs, minivans and other small trucks. Students are trying to figure out whether objects like highway barriers should be changed to reflect the size of the vehicles likely to be plowing into them in the future. Phone: 703-726-3600 Web site: GWUJohn B. Carnett
University of Alabama at Huntsville: Propulsion Research Center
Career: Rocket scientist Learn to: Make things that go very fast and very far Each year, 20 aeronautical- and mechanical-engineering students get eight months to design, construct, and fly a rocket to a height of exactly 5,280 feet. These aren't hobby rockets, which typically fly to less than 1,000 feet (any higher requires an FAA permit). a€œConsider that an a€˜A' engine is half as strong as a a€˜B' engine, and so on,a€ says engineering professor Marlow Moser. a€œThe rockets you shoot off in the park: A and B engines. Our rockets: L engines.a€ Last year's class built a 37-pound, 8.5-foot-long carbon-fiber projectile with advanced data-collection systems onboard. The nosecone carried a video camera and avionics to record the rocket's flight path and other information; the aft end, temperature and strain sensors. Students enter their rocket in a NASA-sponsored student rocket-launching competition and present a report to the space agency's scientists and engineers as if they were a company vying for a contract. Although the presentation is just an academic exercise, several rocket-crew alums go on to work for NASA, which has its Marshall Space Flight Center just down the road from UAH. a€œHere, students are playing with fire and explosives all day,a€ Moser says. a€œIt doesn't get much better than that.a€ Phone: 256-824-7200 Web site: UAHJohn B. Carnett
University of California at Berkeley: Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory
Career: Roboticist Learn to: Put disabled patients back on their feet Rather than building standalone robots, students here build systems that augment human strength, speed and endurance. Check out First Steps of a Cyborg to read about the lab's work for a paraplegic student. Phone: (510) 642-2964 Website: BerkeleyDmitri Alexander
Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Career: NASA scientist Learn to: Build your own spaceship From the Explorer I satellite in 1958 to the new Mars Science Laboratory rover set to blast off at the end of the year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has built the country's most ambitious robotic space vessels. And every summer, about 280 undergraduates arrive there to participate in one of 16 internship programs for engineering or science students. Read more (and check out some great video of the lab) here. Phone: (818) 354-4321 Website: NASAJohn B. Carnett
Northern Kentucky University: Barton Lab
Career: Geologist Learn to: Study Martian living conditions here on Earth If you want to be one of the six lucky undergrads to get off the waiting list and into Hazel Barton's course, you'd better like tight spaces, heights, the dark, bats and getting dirtya€"and that's just to get to the bacteria. Unlike microbiology majors at other schools, the ones laboring over microscopes and petri dishes all day, Barton's students study extremophile microbes where they thrive: caves. Most of Barton's students cave close to home, measuring groundwater pollution and studying links between microbes and cave formations. But some, with NASA assistance, accompany Barton to explore the longest quartzite cave on the planet, a rare 10-mile-long labyrinth of pink and amber sandstone on Venezuela's Roraima plateau. It teems with microbes that researchers think could provide clues to what life might look like on Mars. Most caves are formed by limestone, a carbonate rock. The rock of Roraima, however, is mostly silicate, which is also found on Mars. The team will collect the nitrogen-eating, ammonia-spewing microbes and other strange organisms that live in the walls. Back at the lab, students will observe the bacteria's behavior under varying conditions, gathering information that could help NASA hone its search for extraterrestrial life. Phone: 859-572-1405 Web site: CaveScienceJohn B. Carnett
University of California at Davis: Pilot Brewery
Career: Brewmaster Learn to: Brew the world's best beer Undergrads first make beer in the Practical Malting and Brewing course at the 1.5-barrel pilot brewery. The course culminates in an Iron Brew competition judged by professional brewmasters. The school ranks first among national universities in publishing peer-reviewed articles on food science, and every year, 10 or so brewing students go into the business, either at small breweries or such multinationals as Anheuser-Busch InBev. Read more about the brewmaster concentration here. Phone: 530-752-1465 Website: UC DavisJohn B. Carnett
Texas Tech University: Wind Science and Engineering Research Center
Career: Atmospheric scientist Learn to: Hurl planks at walls to measure hurricane damage In addition to launching projectiles, students in WiSE's Debris Impact Testing Lab throw themselves into the middle of real hurricanes and tornados. Before Katrina hit, students from Texas Tech were on the scene, setting up a mobile research center to take dozens of measurements, including wind velocity and the intensity of the storm's eye. Their instruments were the only ones to survive the storm intact, and now the WiSE possesses the only complete record of the intensity of Katrina's eye at landfall. Based on the lab testing, and forays into disaster scenes during and after storms, the center was also responsible for today's more accurate F-scale for measuring the force of tornados, called the Enhanced F-Scale. It reflects the finding that lower-speed winds do a lot more damage than previously believed. When students aren't steeped in destruction, they're figuring out how to make wind power more efficient or designing homes that will hold up better in the next Katrina. Phone: 806-742-3476 Web site: Texas TechJohn B. Carnett
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Career: Marine scientist Learn to: Probe the ocean deep Each fellow in the program at Woods Hole works on a research project under the supervision of a staff member, and they present their findings to their research departments at the end of the program. Students have analyzed water-sample columns from the Deepwater Horizon spill, estimated the migration paths of baleen whales with an acoustic tracking system, and helped build a biological sampler for undersea vehicles. Learn more about Woods Hole's great marine programs here. Phone: 508-548-1400 Website: Woods HoleCourtesy Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Cornell University: Game Design Initiative
Career: Videogame designer Learn to: Create your own game At the first Ivy League school to offer a minor in game design, students take classes like "Foundations of Artificial Intelligence" and "Computer Animation." The final project: building their own game. (The school's design software keeps code-writing to a minimum.) Each class holds a video exhibition open to the entire university. Alumni have gone on to work on blockbusters like The Sims and Spore. Phone: 607-255-9188 Web site: CornellCourtesy of the Department of Energy
California Institute of Technology Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences
Careers: Geologist, Seismologist Learn to: Work on the edge of Earth's plates Students of other scientific disciplines are usually stuck crunching data in a lab somewhere, but for about 20 majors in the Caltech GPS, life is much more adventurous. Last fall, students went to southern Peru to follow a line of 100 seismometers placed along the Nazca plate, which intersects the South America plate at the western edge of the continent and unleashes huge earthquakes, like the 8.8 monster that struck Chile last year. Read more about Earth plate study here. Phone: 626-395-6123 Website: CalTechCourtesy Professor Mark Simons
New College Florida: Peruvian Amazon Field Course
Career: Rainforest biologist Learn to: Follow rare animals up 150-foot trees Watching sloths sleep sounds boring, but try it suspended 20 stories up in a rainforest and, says recent graduate and biologist Bryson Voirin, a€œit will change your life.a€ More than half the world's terrestrial species live in the treetops, and many animals never touch the ground. Unfortunately, most scientists never leave the ground, says canopy-climbing pioneer and ecologist Meg Lowman, which explains why they've documented fewer than 2 percent of forest canopies. New College students begin on Sarasota's subtropical trees as early as freshman year. Students learn to conduct biodiversity surveys or radio-tag animals. Voirin, who tracked tree-climbing sloths as an undergrad now climbs after them in Panama for the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, collecting data that could help unravel the mysteries of human sleep. Phone: 941-487-4547 Web site: New College FloridaJohn B. Carnett
U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Aberdeen Proving Ground
Careers: Defense researcher, engineer Learn to: Design a microdrone Some of the students interning on the Micro-autonomous Systems Technology (MAST) project at the Army Research Lab in Maryland spend their summer trying to equip soldiers with dozens or even hundreds of "insect" robots that can swarm into a bunker or cave to provide a remote look inside. "Working in silicon at the fruit-fly scale, they'll cost almost nothing," says Chris Kroninger, an aeronautics researcher specializing in MAST's wings, "and they can be equipped with limited sensor capability that can be a first warning for a soldier." Kroninger says the robots won't be deployed for another decade at least, and there's plenty of work yet to be done. That's true of most projects given to the 185 undergraduate students at the Army Research Lab every year. Whether they analyze body armor, develop new materials, or create miniaturized sensors, there's more going on than they can possibly be part of. Read more here. Phone: 410-278-6968 Website: ArmyCourtesy Doug Lafon/Army Research Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Toy Lab
Career: Toy designer Learn to: Build toys and test them on actual kids You think college is all fun and games, well it isa€”if you're one of 90 lucky students in MIT's most popular freshman elective. Each spring, 15 teams of six get a theme and $750 to design and prototype a toy or game. Past inventions include a one-wheeled motorized skateboard and a futuristic game of tag. With a prototyping shop at their disposal, students can make almost anything. At the end of the day, however, play testing determines success. Throughout the semester, teams hand their prototypes to visiting kids, whose feedback means more than any grade. a€œOne thing I've learned,a€ says senior Michael Snively, whose class experience got him a summer gig at Hasbro. a€œYou can never predict what kids will do with your toy.a€ Phone: 617-823-6016 Web site: MITJohn B. Carnett
Reed College: Nuclear Reactor
Careers: Physics researcher, nuclear engineer Learn to: Run a nuclear reactor Reed College, a liberal-arts school in Portland, Oregon, has 1,447 students and no graduate schools. But it has its own nuclear reactor. Only 27 schools in the nation have such a thing, and they usually use grad students and pros to run it. Reed entrusts the power of fission to students as young as freshmen, licensing twice as many undergraduate operators as any other university. Read more here. Phone: 503-777-7222 Website: ReedJohn B. Carnett
University of Florida: Lightning Research Laboratory
Career: Building lightning-resistant objects Learn to: Catch lightninga€"millions of volts of it At the Lightning Lab, a group of students and researchers work around the clock all summer to trigger lightning during passing storms. A thin wire attached to a rocket acts as a kind of fuse, coaxing a bolt of lightning down the so-called plasma channel to the grounded metal launcher. There the lab's sensor networks help solve such mysteries as the cause of each stroke's unique electromagnetic field, or how a direct hit will affect underground cables. But triggering lightning is not as easy as it sounds. Lab co-director Vladimir Rakov says the students are lucky if they get 40 strokes of lightning per season, and many of those could happen during the same storm. Five years ago, students in the Lightning Lab helped make one of the decade's biggest discoveries: that most lightning emits x-rays. Today, students are still trying to figure out why by building new x-ray-sensor networks. Phone: 352-846-3949 Web site: University of FloridaCourtesy V.A. Rakov/University of Florida
Cornell University Creative Machines Lab
Careers: Mechanical engineer, biomedical engineer Learn to: Print new body parts At the Creative Machines Lab, a division of Cornell's department of mechanical engineering, 3-D printers fabricate everything from cupcake frosting to chain mail to body parts. Associate professor Hod Lipson, the head of the lab (whom we've interviewed about the project before), says "fabbing" particularly suits undergrads, because it takes only basic training in mechanical engineering to get involved, and the field rewards messing around. Cornell undergrads and master's students designed a new open-source printer design, called Fab@Home, that anyone can build from blueprints online. And it was students in 2002 who developed a technique for bioprinting, which blends living human cells with inks. The potential breakthrough for reconstructive medicine is beginning to produce flesh, spinal discs and cartilage that could one day make their way into humans. Read more here. Website: CornellCourtesy John Amend
Colorado State University: Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory
Career: Mechanical engineer Learn to: Make a 2,300hp engine stronger and cleaner Take it from CSU postdoc Sachin Joshi, you haven't really seen an engine until you've climbed inside one. At the EECL, students retrofit industrial engines that reach two stories in height. One of the largest is a two-stroke, 440-horsepower combustion engine, typically used to compress natural gas and push it through underground pipes. In the lab's 17 years, the technologies it has developed for this type of engine alone (including a now-ubiquitous fuel-injection system) have reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 120 million modern cars off the highway. Joshi and his students are now working on a 17-ton Caterpillar natural-gas-powered generator that's capable of providing electricity for up to 1,200 homes. Utilities want to hook up the 1.8-megawatt machines to the grid in the middle of cities (to save the energy otherwise lost in transit), so they need to run clean. Caterpillar donated one to EECL. The team has already created an ignition system in which a laser travels through fiber-optic cables to optical spark plugs. It burns fuel more efficiently than the stock ignition while emitting fewer nitrogen oxides. Phone: 970-491-4793 Web site: Colorado StateJohn B. Carnett
Montana State University: Subzero Science and Engineering Laboratory
Career: Antarctic explorer Learn to: Look for life in 250,000-year-old ice cores This fall, students will step into a a€"80°F laboratory to study stuff in deep freeze. One project will look for life in 250,000-year-old ice cores taken from two miles underneath the Antarctic. Others will study the best way to keep winter roads ice-free, and research the flow of snow to better predict avalanches. Phone: 406-994-2111 Web site: Montana StateKelly Gorham / www.montana.edu
University of Southern California: Visualizing Science Initiative
Career: Animator Learn to: Put science on the big screen USC's Visualizing Science Initiative illuminates scientific concepts through visual effects. The goal is threefold: Students on their way to jobs in Hollywood or the gaming industry will be more likely to inject science into entertainment, scientists will develop better ways to communicate their work to laymen, and digital tools will improve real research. Read more here. Website: USC Courtesy Roberto A. Gomez
U.S. Geological Survey: Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
Career: Geophysicist Learn to: Measure lava flow on volcanoes As many as 20 students compete for each volunteer position working and living on one of the world's most active volcanos. Up to eight students at a time sleep in a house in a national park and wake up before the crack of dawn to hike into the wilderness, mapping a region that might soon begin oozing molten rock. The payoff: helping elite researchers measure some extremely powerful underground action, including the bulging shapes created by underground magma flow and the seismic activity that spurs eruptions. Says scientist-in-charge Jim Kauahikaua, "For many, it's their first experience with volcano work, and it changes their lives." Phone: 808-967-7328 Website: U.S. Geological SurveyCourtesy U.S. Geological Survey/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Careers: Astronomer, astrophysicist Learn to: Eavesdrop on nearby galaxies Of the 25 to 30 research assistants accepted at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory each year, some are stationed at the Charlottesville, Virginia, headquarters, some at the 27-antenna Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, and some at the 361-foot Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in Green Bank, West Virginia. Students might make measurements of galaxies, sample emissions of molecules from a newborn star, or explore the physical conditions of a comet. Read more here. Phone: 434-296-0211 Website: NRAOJohn B. Carnett
Stanford University: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Career: Condensed-matter physicist Learn to: Capture 3-D images of molecules using powerful x-rays Every summer, undergrads join Nobel Prizea€"winning scientists here to send electrons down the longest linear accelerator in the world at close to 670 million mph, producing superpowerful x-rays. These x-ray beams are used to create 3-D images of individual molecules. Phone: 650-926-3300 Web site: StanfordJustin Lebar
University of California at Berkeley: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Career: Alien hunter Learn to: Create software that looks for signs of extraterrestrials The programs makes use of SETI@home, a supercomputer which works by tapping the power of millions of ordinary PCs all over the Web. It analyzes data from radio telescopes looking for signals from intelligent life. Berkeley SETI students help improve the search algorithms and refine the software that ties all the computers together. Phone: 510-642-6997 Web site: BerkeleyDave Deboer
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Human Performance Wing
Careers: Defense researcher, engineer Learn to: Make a better soldier About 150 student interns pass through the Human Performance Wing at the Air Force Research Lab every year. A state-of-the-art aircraft is only as good as the people controlling it, so students get such projects as simplifying the cockpit and control rooms by refining software interfaces and studying human vulnerability to directed-energy weapons. Within Walters's Biosciences and Performance Division, interns analyze threats posed by nanoparticles, chemical weapons or plain old fatigue. Read more here. Phone: 937-522-3252 Website: Air ForceCourtesy Elizabeth Long/ 711th Human Performance Wing, Wright-Patterson/U.S. Air Force