Trinity University’s sleek new building may surprise those who have not stepped foot on a college campus since their own school days. The modernity of the structure’s exterior, however, is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the academic game-changers it hides within.
The $117 million facility, named the Center for the Sciences and Innovation (CSI), was completed earlier this year after four years of construction. The building serves as the new home to Trinity’s science and mathematics departments, including chemistry, biology, and computer science (the STEM fields, for short).
“I love CSI,” said Trinity biology major Austin Greenhaw in Trinity’s introductory video to the building. “It doesn’t feel like I’m in a dungeon.”
Greenhaw’s statement is immediately on point, both in giving a sense of the building’s aesthetics and revealing its divergence from visions of more traditional science classrooms. The CSI’s most salient architectural feature is glass: its towering façade almost appears as one gigantic window, allowing copious sunlight into the building’s expansive central atrium. Inside, the labs, too, sport wide, wall-like windows. Walking through the halls on any given day, one can spy science students at work, peering into microscopes or working with reptiles. Other features include an abundance of open study areas, art on every floor, and a garden of local flora on the roof.
But Trinity did not simply set out to construct a pretty space. Though it may not be detectable at a glance, every design decision has a very specific—and innovative—pedagogical purpose.
Plans for the project began in March 2006, when John Greene, Trinity’s director of campus planning and sustainability, traveled with several faculty members to a workshop hosted by Project Kaleidoscope, an academic institution focused on advancing how university-level science is taught today.
“Project Kaleidoscope is concerned with re-teaching instructors how to teach science,” said Kelly Lyons, an associate professor of biology at Trinity. “In order to attract more students to the STEM fields, and to better instruct STEM students, we focus on things like transparency, teacher-student interaction, and interdisciplinary collaboration between both students and faculty.”
The workshop—which focuses in part on physical learning spaces—made a lasting impression. Trinity faculty desired a merging of disciplines and transparency in their teaching. They adopted those tenets as the foundation of their teaching space.
To help carve those tenets into brick, glass, and limestone, Trinity brought on EYP Architecture and Engineering in 2008, a national architecture firm experienced in designing science buildings for American universities.
Biology Chair David Ribble, a member of the planning committee for the Center, filled the position of “shepherd,” or liaison between EYP and Trinity’s academic planning committee. “It’s important to bring in someone from the outside when completing a project like this,” said Ribble. “They pushed us to think a little differently.”
The result of this partnership was, of course, the Center itself, a five-story, 280,000 square foot, Gold LEED-Certified resource for the entire university.
To its bones, CSI’s design makes literal the desire for interconnectedness and collaboration that drove original concepts for the space. Where, in traditional university operation, departments rule over very specific and isolated chunks of real estate, CSI cracks those barriers.
“One of the first ideas was to put an intro biology lab and an intro chemistry lab right next to each other,” reported Charles Kirby, EYP’s Academic Planning and Design Expert. “That way, students run into each other coming out of class and start conversations. They ask ‘What are you guys doing?’ and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’ ”
Kirby calls these encounters “effective intellectual collisions,” and, in theory, they help to drive a sense of collaboration and openness among the entire student body.
“The concept was a little strange at first,” remembered Lyons. “The designers actually wanted instructors to fight for space, to exist and work in the same areas, to bump into each other.”
The glass that so visually marks the building contributes to the objective of openness as well. One of EYP’s mantras for the project was “science on display,” and it shows. In fact, "open" is a word that pervades the sense of the Center; the hallways are wide, the windows large. Students relax and study in the numerous seating areas, work diligently in the glass-walled labs, and converse with professors everywhere in between.
There isn't a traditional classroom in sight.
“Anyone can look over and see that we have a garden on the roof, for instance,” Lyons said. “We hope it will draw them in.”
“Even more often now (since the Center’s construction), I make a point to keep my door open,” said Ribble. “Part of our goal here is to give students more access to faculty. Honestly though,” he confided, “I’m afraid I’ll miss something if I leave it shut.”
Though Trinity’s faculty doesn’t come out and say it, many of the concepts that stand behind the design for the Center for the Sciences and Innovation seek to combat the old, dusty stereotypes of scientific learning—as dark, as dank, as hopelessly opaque.
“We evolved under sunlight,” Ribble stated simply.
Trinity’s commitment to opening up the STEM fields is clear. The Center and its design say the sciences are exciting; they are fresh. Anyone can understand and enjoy them, if only they give themselves the chance.
In many ways, Trinity appears to be on the forefront of this style of learning. “This (teaching style) is a trend across many campuses today,” said Kirby. “But Trinity has pursued it with a special relish.”
“Things are very different from my own undergraduate days,” mused Ribble, a Trinity alumnus.
“Traditionally, class spaces, study spaces, and spaces for relaxation were all very demarcated," Lyons said. "You didn’t hang out in the class buildings, for instance.”
CSI clearly encourages an opposite mode.
“You can see students in the study areas, even late at night, either studying or hanging out,” said Greene.
In a way, the Center seeks to be all things to all people. It does not conceptually separate the type of activities students partake in, or try to present academic as an isolated mode of existence. Instead, work, learning, and socializing become one in the Center, allowing students to flow easily between all three.
The building makes an even deeper statement about the sciences with another of its most visible materials: limestone.
“Limestone can be a porous stone,” said Paul King, a Lead Designer at EYP. “It often assists in the creation of aquifers, including the Edwards Aquifer in San Antonio, which is what drew life to this area in the first place. If we envision the glass of the Center’s design as water, the entire building becomes an encompassing metaphor for life itself, which is what the STEM fields seek to understand.”
For Ribble, the integration of life sciences into one structure is more than poetic.
“In a way, it’s all very practical,” he said. “The issues we’re dealing with as a scientific community are interdisciplinary by nature. To solve a problem like global warming, you have to talk to the geologists, you have to talk to the biologists. You have to collaborate. We’re teaching our students to do that from the beginning.”
*Featured/top image: Students go over equations in one of the more private study areas in Trinity University's Center for the Sciences and Innovation. In the room beyond, their peers participate in a lab. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.