A New Building, a New Campus Vibe

by Kurt Schleunes, mathematics teacher at the Berkshire School

Our new academic building, the Bellas/Dixon Math and Science Center, has transformed the Berkshire School both educationally and culturally. It isn't just a pretty façade with great facilities. The design incorporates the idea that change will occur rapidly in the 21st century and that a building must be optimally flexible, for now and for later. The science and math rooms meet not simply the needs of today's students, but they also were designed with an eye towards the future as curriculum requirements, teachers, and students change.

Our Advanced Math/Science Research Laboratory is a prime example. It is now a full-on microbiology research facility with ties to laboratories and professional researchers in Albany, Hartford, and the Berkshires. Under the direction of Dr. April Burch, director of the program, this lab has been able to grow and change according to the needs of the students.

Similarly, our Project Exploration Room has gone through several iterations in just a couple of years and is now home to our STEAM program. This Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics program continues to expand in scope, including an after school program and an interdisciplinary component. This allows classes to access the room and use it in a variety of ways. Current projects include a 20-foot-long suspension bridge, 3D printing in a variety of disciplines, and artistic pursuits. We never anticipated that one of our students would use the room to create a piece of art that was honored as one of the top 35 AP Studio Art pieces in the nation; we just made sure to leave enough room and provide the resources to help her succeed.

The science rooms are well laid out, with excellent adjacent storage that, again, allows for maximum flexibility in terms of the types of classes and manner of projects that can use the space. The math rooms are big! This enables lots of group work and the ability for students to present projects to the class without feeling any space limitations. Our students are much more relaxed in the new building because of the spaciousness of its classrooms and labs. They also are able to use the Center as a study space because of all the areas designed for that.

On the personal level, this new facility has rejuvenated my teaching. I can now incorporate technology into my classes like never before. For example, in Multivariable Calculus, we are creating mathematical surfaces in K3dSurf, a mathematical modeling program. Then we bring them into SketchUp and make buildings. Then we bring them into Meshmixer and distort them, a la Frank Gehry. Next we bring them into Cura and print them out on our Ultimaker2 3D printers. It’s Unbelievable.

The Bellas/Dixon Math and Science Center is a source of pride for everyone at the school and visiting tours are pretty amazed. The open and transparent interior design lets them look right into classrooms and walk into many of the rooms to get a feel for what we are doing. Its beautiful spaces also make it a very popular place for students to hang out and study at all hours of the day.

We constantly have representatives from schools that are looking to build their own STEM centers come through and they’ll say, enviously, “We really want a building like this.” I tell them, “Get Centerbrook.”

Kurt Schleunes is a mathematics teacher at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. He created the school’s Advanced Math/Science Research Program and has assisted eight student semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, an annual program of the Society for Science & the Public. He also plays the vibraphone and marimba.