Hair stood on end. Flowers shattered. Metal hoops sailed into the air.
There was quite a lot going on in the new Science Center on a recent Saturday as visitors toured the building. As part of the Oct. 20 grand opening celebration, students and professors representing Amherst’s seven science departments offered demonstrations meant to engage even the most reticent with the wonders of science.
“This is my ‘god of thunder’ routine,” joked Professor of Physics William A. Loinaz as he used a Van de Graaff generator to cause bolts of electricity to fly off his fingers.
The interactive displays introduced a building that, together with the four new Greenway Dorms and landscaped Greenway, represent what President Biddy Martin calls “the biggest transformation of the Amherst campus since its founding.”
The project “says something about our commitment to beauty,” she noted at the opening celebration, “It says we care deeply about science. It says something about our commitment to sustainability.”
While the College has long offered opportunities for undergraduate science students to conduct hands-on research with professors, the missing piece has been the perfect place in which to do it. Enrollments in STEM courses at Amherst have increased a whopping 85 percent in the past 15 years. The aging Merrill Science Center, with its mazes of hallways and isolated labs, strained to accommodate this surge in interest.
The solution is the new Science Center, which arrived just in time. Literally. The $242 million project opened on schedule and under budget, in time for fall classes. In addition to 68 research and teaching labs and a dozen classrooms, it contains 87 offices, the Moss Quantitative Center, the Keefe Science Library, a café, a greenhouse, an observatory and more.
Designed by the Boston-based architecture firm Payette, the building boasts green credentials: The average science building uses roughly 370 kiloBTUs per square foot per year. The new building reduces that by at least 73 percent.
The project signifies Amherst’s commitment to beauty and sustainability, Martin said.
But arguably the most important features are the gathering spaces, which draw faculty and students together every day. A large, open area, dubbed “the living room,” runs the length of the building and is furnished for both socializing and working. From the core of the building, an open central stair provides access to all floors, while glass walls offer views both out to the campus and within to the research labs and classrooms.
At the grand opening, prior to the tours and demonstrations, College trustee Shirley Tilghman, president emerita of Princeton, focused on the building’s broader significance: “I don’t think you can be a great liberal arts college,” she said, moderating a panel of alumni scientists, “if you are not taking science seriously.”
And with state-of-the-art spaces that strengthen partnerships between faculty and students, there are few places that take science as seriously as Amherst’s grand new building.