An open area dubbed “the living room” features a wall of windows with blinds that automatically adjust to save energy.

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.

The Facts

What you need to know about the new Science Center

Where is it?

On the east side of campus, on the site of the former Social Dorms

What departments are there?

Biology, Biochemistry and Biophysics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Physics and Astronomy and Psychology and Neuroscience. Math and Statistics has a consulting space in the building. It’s also home to the Moss Quantitative Center, the Keefe Science Library, a café, a greenhouse and more.

How big is it?

At 250,000 square feet, it is the largest building in the College’s history. It boasts 68 research and teaching labs, 12 classrooms and 87 offices.

What’s happening to Merrill?

Merrill Science Center and McGuire Life Sciences Building are closed while the College decides what to do with those spaces. One of several options is to use the site for a student center.

What were the most difficult items to move?

Arguably, they were Professor David Hall ’91’s two laser tables, loaded with optics, electronics and a delicate vacuum system. Each table weighed half a ton. They had to be carried level, to within a few degrees, to avoid damaging the instrumentation. The weather was so hot, and the equipment so heavy, that the forklift tires sank into the fresh asphalt—requiring movers to put down Masonite and plywood. “I am deeply appreciative to all who helped in the move,” Hall says. “I hope my students and I can now prove that it was worth it.”

Photo Credit: Maria Stenzel