Amherst Magazine

College Row
Alan Bernstein 63
Teaching on the test: Assistant Professor of Geology Anna Martini teaches a class in one of the teaching laboratories in the new Earth Sciences and Museum of Natural History Building. The floor incorporates a grid that is the basis for the Geology 11 final project.

Built from the inside out

“Welcome to your building,” says Jack Cheney, the Samuel A. Hitchcock Professor of Mineralogy and Geology, as he ushers a visitor into the new Earth Sciences and Museum of Natural History Building. Located behind Fayerweather and next to the Keefe Campus Center, the structure is more than new quarters for the Geology Department and the college’s extensive natural history collection; since the Earth Sciences half of the building opened for classes this spring, the building has quickly become an anchor for the eastern part of campus and a new home for the campus community. Once the Museum of Natural History opens in May, the mastodon and wooly mammoth skeletons, centrally framed in a two-story atrium that will be illuminated and clearly visible from outside day and night, are bound to attract even more visitors.

It’s no surprise that the new Earth Sciences Building is full of rocks. More than 10,000 specimens, in their original wooden trays, were moved from their former home in the Pratt Museum of Natural History (now being converted to a dorm) and placed in glass-doored cabinets that line the new building’s classrooms and labs. Other rock treatments are more surprising. A mound of Gore Mountain amphibolite with large garnet crystals announces the building on the north side, and outdoor ledges are made of Goshen schist. Inside, Hawley amphib­olite floors incorporate fossil-like crow’s feet. Even the restrooms are geological: the first-floor bathroom features granite countertops, the second-floor countertops are limestone, and the third-floor countertops are made of Gore Mountain garnet amphibolite. The Reading Room counter is made of polished Goshen schist. When a visitor expresses surprise that the classrooms contain blackboards, rather than the whiteboards found elsewhere on campus, Cheney laughs. “It’s like slate!” he exclaims, adding, “What’s teaching without a little chalk dust?”

But the building’s virtues extend beyond cool floors and nice light. The structure was built “from the inside out,” Cheney explains; the design team and architects met at length with faculty to get a sense of how they taught, how they collaborated with students in research, and how they thought the department would evolve in the future. Every feature was designed to support some particular aspect of pedagogy. For example, the sample cabinets that ring each classroom are elegant—but they’re functional, too, allowing students easy access to specimens used in class and in research. Because class sizes vary, the building’s lecture hall can be set up for 20, 30 or 50. The same lecture hall features wooden tables in front of the seats, “wide enough to accommodate laptops or notebooks,” Cheney explains. The whole building, of course, is wireless.

The most visible application of design’s adaptation to pedagogy is in two of the five teaching laboratories, where large grids are built right into the floor. Made up of lines running from A to Z and from 1 to 26, the grids are, in fact, the Geology 11 final project. During the exam, 100 to 150 rocks are placed on the grid, and students are asked to use the layout to create a geologic map and write a geological history for the mapped area. Although the new building doesn’t facilitate teaching to the test, it’s literally built for teaching on the test.

Similarly, space was carefully allocated to support program needs and priorities. Because the department is very student-oriented, Cheney says, geologists opted for smaller faculty research labs in order to provide dedicated office space for senior students. Because of the high level of faculty collaboration, the building includes four upper-level teaching labs for five faculty members; each teaching lab has space for two faculty members, and each faculty member has space in two teaching labs. “It’s amazing how much more efficiently you can use resources this way,” Cheney notes. The labs abut the instrument rooms, allowing faculty members to be in two places at once. And the second-floor sedimentology–paleontology teaching lab is adjacent to the Museum of Natural History, making it easy for researchers to draw on the college’s extraordinary collection. Moreover, at the end of each of the building’s three main corridors are gathering places where students and faculty can socialize and talk shop. These areas feature soft seating, minerals and floor-to-ceiling slate chalkboards to facilitate discussion.

The building houses top-of-the-line research equipment, most notably a scanning electron microscope, an x-ray CT scanner and an ICP spectrometer, used by faculty and students alike.

While classes are underway in the Earth Sciences portion of the building, work continues on the Museum of Natural History. Skeletons dismantled during the move from the Pratt are being reassembled, and the dinosaur footprints are being installed on the building’s ground floor. These footprints are attached to movable racks to increase visibility and maximize space, says collections manager Kate Wellspring. Visitors to the museum will be able to get even more “up close” with the tracks, says Wellspring; plaster casts of the gigantic impressions are being installed in the building’s ground floor, and by May, guests will be able to almost walk in the footsteps of the dinosaurs.

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