Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Glimpse of Hope for Science in the Great Valley

How good is your imagination?

If you've followed this blog for awhile, you might be aware of our effort to build a Science Community Center on our campus, paid for by a bond measure passed by the voters in our local community a few years ago. The bond passed just prior to the Great Recession, and in the disastrous years that followed, the construction projects on our campus provided some of the few construction jobs in our region. Still, campus politics threatened to fritter away the vision we had for a building that would house the physical and biological science laboratories as well as a planetarium, an observatory, and a museum. It would be a true science center, a place where the community could learn about the region's paleontology, biology, geology, and anthropology, along with astronomy, physics, and chemistry. I had trouble imagining that it could ever come to pass.
Not anymore! We took a tour of the facility for the first time today, which is about 7 months from completion. It was exciting to see a dream falling into place (maybe "falling" isn't the best word, but you know what I mean). Above, we are looking at the dome of the planetarium. Below, we are looking at the main display room for the new museum. Our current facility is the Great Valley Museum, and it is staffed by talented people, and has a great program of community outreach in the form of traveling teachers, but the facility itself is hardly "great". It is in an 80 year old former house. This is a quantum leap! We will have a facility to be proud of, one that is capable of educating thousands of students every year, something that simply is not possible today.
Outside on one side of the building will be a seating area that will include the names of the most important scientists in history embedded in the concrete (I think I picked James Hutton, Alfred Wegener, and John Wesley Powell for geology). The other side of the building will have a natural outdoor laboratory with native vegetation, a pond, and a small artificial creek.
The observatory tower is four stories high, and is structurally separate from the rest of the building to keep vibrations to a minimum. There will be a Foucault Pendulum at the base of the structure. There will also be a storage area on the roof for a dozen or more telescopes that will be used for community stargazing events.

Of course, I wanted to see what would happen in the geology area. We are to be located on the third floor. There will be an open air atrium at the top of the stairs that will ultimately have a mosasaur skeleton hanging from the ceiling. The beautiful room in the picture below will be the geology lab. It's already as messy as the lab I have now!
The lab prep area was a surprise. I didn't know it would have windows. I am already thinking of displays to put there. A seismograph monitor is a definite possibility.
The stairway for the building will be a work of art. It is a circular stairway, and the center of the structure will be a model of the DNA double helix running from the first floor to the third. As students and visitors come up to the third floor landing, they will be confronted by the mosasaur, and then a series of glass cases containing minerals and other geology-themed displays.
As we roamed the outside halls of the third floor, I realized a wonderful benefit of our location. We will have unobstructed views of our valley in all directions! One of the problems that I encounter is our students rarely have a sense of the valley that they live in. They think of it as a big flat place, but from the third floor (or from the roof on astronomy nights), they will be able to see the Sierra Nevada to the northeast, and the Coast Ranges off to the southwest.
Our instructional program can now truly include a "sense of place", just by having our students walk around the hallways of the third floor.
Up until today, I was too cynical to think that our vision for our community would ever be implemented. It was a profound experience to walk through this bare-bones structure and dream about the facility that we will have in a few months. Our community made an ambitious commitment to science education a few years ago. It's going to be fun living up to their expectations!
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