New Day for Science
by Doug McInnis '70 / photos by Al Fuchs
Oberlin's new building supports
a "culture of science" with many disciplines in one high-tech
When renowned chemistry professor Frank Fanning Jewett
arrived to teach at Oberlin in 1880, he had already worked at several
more prosperous institutions. Whereas Yale, Harvard, and the Imperial
University in Tokyo--his former haunts--had among the best-equipped
chemistry labs in the world, threadbare Oberlin lacked even a decent
scale for measuring chemical samples. Jewett--who went on to train
aluminum industry pioneer Charles Martin Hall and Nobel laureate
Robert Millikan--spent his frigid winter days crawling beneath the
floorboards of Oberlin's chemistry lab, thawing water pipes with
a Bunsen burner.
There is no doubt that Jewett, Hall, and Millikan
would be among the first to applaud the construction of the new
Science Center. Dedicated on October 4, 2002, the facility is
a computer-age marvel. Take, for example, the new scanning electron
microscope, which is housed in the geology facilities in Carnegie
and linked electronically to "smart" classrooms in the
Science Center. A physics or biology professor can walk across the
street to Carnegie, place a sample in the microscope, and return
to his classroom to project the magnified image on a wall-sized
An architectural showpiece, the building--with a budget
of $55 million for construction and associated costs, and $10 million
for an operations-and-maintenance endowment--is a postmodern structure
sheathed in sandstone and designed to blend in with the stone facades
of the venerable Carnegie Building, Finney Chapel, and Wilder Hall.
The project actually joins together four structures--half of the
Kettering Hall of Science, the Sperry Neuroscience Wing, the Wright
Laboratory of Physics, and a new L-shaped addition that links the
three buildings. Physics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience now
share one building, spurring new links between the sciences.
To understand what the building means for Oberlin's
future, it's necessary to understand why the College forged ahead
with the largest capital construction project in its history.
Since 1960, the number of science graduates at Oberlin
has more than doubled and the science faculty has increased by roughly
two-thirds, leading to overcrowding in the existing facilities.
In addition, equipment needed for emerging fields such as molecular
biology--which didn't even exist when Kettering opened in 1961--was
Kettering, Wright, and Sperry were also too small
to house the instruments and laboratories needed to handle an increasing
emphasis on faculty and student research. Science majors are now
expected to conduct research; in fact, notwithstanding Kettering's
less-than-ideal conditions, 250 students co-authored journal articles
with Oberlin faculty members during the past several years.
The science facilities also lacked the wiring needed
to equip "smart" classrooms, high-tech teaching spaces
outfitted with technology that blends high-speed fiber optics, computers,
and large screens, and allows classes to access electronic data
from half a world away.
Other liberal arts colleges had already modernized
their science facilities during a building boom in the 1980s and
1990s. With such glaring inadequacies, Oberlin was at risk of losing
the best science faculty members and the most promising
The late David Love, director of sponsored programs
and project administrator for the Science Center, summed up the
problem this way: Oberlin could either build the new center or lose
its status as a leading science college. That was an outcome no
Today, the building is such a hit that the admissions
office has introduced a Science Center tour for prospective students.
Once inside, students and their parents can witness Oberlin's offerings--teachers
who take time to talk to them and highly sophisticated instrumentation
that students themselves can use.
"I've had professors talk to potential applicants
for half an hour," says tour guide Rachel Schuler, a senior
who plans to attend graduate school in botany. "The Cal Techs
and the Harvards have more instruments, but undergraduates may never
get near them."
Here, in capsule form, is a tour of the new building.
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