Designed Around Teaching
Physics instructor Scott Saltman was among the teachers who first proposed expanding Exeter's science facilities in 1994. With the rest of the department, he participated in a comprehensive review of the science curriculum that shaped plans for the new building. When the Academy trustees made the commitment to constructing the first free-standing structure to be added to campus since the Library was completed in 1971, Bill Grover and his team at Centerbrook Architects worked closely with faculty and students to create a building that reflected the dynamism of "doing" science. Saltman served as the liaison between the science department and the architects.
"Surrounded by Science"
"We wanted a building where students would be surrounded by science, both inside the classroom and outside," says Saltman. "I think," he adds with a smile, "we have accomplished this."
The glass walls in the common labs are one feature that allows anyone entering the building to feel "surrounded by science." In the spaces beyond the labs and classrooms, the science department came up with ingenious ways to make science tangible. A 900-gallon tropical aquarium is the centerpiece of the main lobby, and a breaching humpback whale skeleton hangs in the rear atrium. Not surprisingly, teachers have already incorporated these unique features into their classes. "We will use the aquarium when we study light in physics," Saltman notes. "It turns out that the shape of the tank is odd enough that you get interesting bending of light and reflections."
A Marine Ecosystem
The presence of the aquarium has added a whole new dimension to Dr. Sydnee Goddard's courses. "In the past we never studied the coral reef for more than a couple of days. Now we're able to go downstairs and watch the coral in the aquarium. We have already done research on the coral and the fish, studying the difference between day and night behavior. It's fantastic to have an actual ecosystem in the building and to be able to observe the interactions between species."
A Whale of a Teaching Tool
Richard Aaronian brings his biology students up to the third floor for a discussion of the whale skeleton and how flexible these huge animals are in the water. But the humpback whale has been an invaluable teaching tool ever since its carcass first washed up on a Cape Cod beach in the spring of 2000. PEA instructors and students were part of the team that helped extract the skeleton on site. During the 2000-01 school year, under the supervision of biology teacher Townley Chisholm (and Toby Stephenson and Dan DenDanto, researchers from Allied Whale at the College of the Atlantic), students helped wash and bleach the whale bones prior to the assembly of the 28-foot skeleton, which now hangs like a Calder sculpture between the central staircase and the rear entrance.
Evidence of Careful Design Everywhere
Details throughout the Phelps Science Center reflect the careful thought that went into the design, from the symbols representing the different branches of science etched into the glass walls of the common labs to the tile floor in the lobby, laid out to mirror the night sky on October 27, 2001, the day the building was dedicated. In addition to the wet table and cold storage room, the biology common lab offers a growth chamber for plants. The physics lab features a level seamless runway for large-scale kinesthetic experiments and a circular motion turntable. In the chemistry common lab, 16 feet of fume-hood space allow an entire class to conduct experiments at the same time. On the lobby and third floor, lounge areas encourage students to view the building as a meeting and study space. A spacious conference room and the 300-seat Grainger Auditorium are used by the entire Exeter community.