When Architecture and Pedagogy Meet

New Science Building Complements a Hands-On-Approach to Science Education

by Anne C. Paine


M.S. Frizzle, the wildly enthusiastic (and wildly dressed) science teacher in the children's book and television series The Magic School Bus, urges her students to hypothesize, to research, to experiment, to test their theories, and to discover scientific concepts and principles for themselves. "Make mistakes, get messy," the Frizz urges her young pupils.

There's more to this pedagogical approach than entertainment for children.

Oberlin's science professors probably don't advocate making messes, but they do encourage their students to tackle science with a hands-on approach. They'll soon have a building that will better complement their efforts.

In December, Oberlin's Board of Trustees approved final designs for a science center that will incorporate 142,000 square feet of new construction and 87,000 square feet of renovations to existing structures. Designed expressly for contemporary teaching methods, the building will help Oberlin retain its national position as a premier educator of future scientists.

The center will house the departments of biology, chemistry, neuroscience, and physics, as well as a vastly enlarged science library and a new commons area that will serve as a meeting and gathering place for faculty members and students from all disciplines. The entire complex, - from the current east end of Kettering Hall and the Sperry Neuroscience Wing to the Wright Laboratory of Physics - will be joined, creating a unified complex.

Science Changes, Teaching Changes
Why does Oberlin need this new facility?

"Two basic reasons," says David Love, the science project executive. "First, science has changed in the last 30 years. Second, science teaching has changed in the last 30 years." Along with Associate Professor of Chemistry Albert Matlin, Love co-chairs the science facilities committee that worked over the last two and a half years with the architectural firm to develop the plans for the center. "Oberlin's current facilities are built for a pedagogical style that has become outmoded," Love says.

The past several decades have witnessed an explosion of scientific knowledge and the emergence of such new fields as microbiology and neuroscience. These advances necessitated changes in the way science is taught. While classroom lectures and demonstrations are still widely used, laboratory work and research activities have gained prominence in science curricula nationwide, including at Oberlin.

The nature of instructional laboratories has also changed, moving from demonstrations and observation exercises to active research and hands-on learning of scientific principles. Individual and collaborative research with faculty members now play a far more critical role for students. This emphasis on research has made science and science education instrument-intensive endeavors, altering space requirements in educational facilities.

Designing a User-Friendly Building
These shifts informed the plans for the science center, designed by Payette Associates of Boston. The buildings are designed to encourage students and faculty members from the various departments to meet and collaborate. The entire complex is under one roof, and the areas that will be used by everyone - the library and the commons lounge area - are in the center of the facility.

In keeping with modern pedagogical methods, the center's architecture blurs the distinction between classroom and laboratory. Research and teaching will occur in the same room, during the same class period.

Classrooms will contain multiple computer outlets, allowing them to be used for both traditional lectures and small group project work, and each department will have a dedicated seminar room. Two of the center's three large lecture halls will be equipped with modern audiovisual equipment and capabilities to support innovative teaching. The third will be the largest lecture hall on campus.

Teaching laboratories have been configured for modern, smaller laboratory classes. These labs will be outfitted with blackboards, and sightlines have been carefully considered, permitting lectures to be an integral part of laboratory sessions. The center will support three times as many students doing individual or collaborative research as do current facilities. In addition, all faculty members will have space for personal research. Appropriate placement of instrumentation in or near laboratories has been a design priority, and every laboratory will include computer connections.

Safety features have been vastly upgraded; for example, the chemistry department will benefit from improved air-handling systems which will allow faculty members and students to carry out a range of experiments not possible in the current building. The center also includes spaces to accommodate new areas of science: a cell-culture room for biology and neuroscience, an electrophysiology suite for neuroscience, and a laser laboratory for chemistry. The physics department will enjoy renovated facilities on the upper floors of Wright, bringing the entire building to the high standard of the research laboratories located in the basement, which were renovated in 1994.

The design also addresses the growth of science at Oberlin. Shortages of faculty laboratories in both the physics department and the neuroscience program will be corrected, and for the first time, neuroscience classrooms will be located within the science building. The library, also critically short of space, will be vastly enlarged, to three times the size of the current library.

Work on the facility is expected to begin this summer, with completion of fund raising and construction by fall 2002. The largest capital project in Oberlin's history, the center has an approved budget of $55 million for construction and associated project costs and $10 million for an endowment for maintenance and operating costs.

Oberlin President Nancy S. Dye believes the College's strength and reputation are dependent on this new center.

"This new science center is critically necessary to ensure and enhance Oberlin's scientific leadership," she says, "and also to ensure and enhance the entire College's intellectual strength and academic excellence."