Designing for a New Age of Discovery

Albert Einstein was 26 when he published his “Special Theory of Relativity.” James D. Watson was 25 when he and Francis Crick discovered the architecture of DNA, arguably the greatest scientific achievement of our lifetime. Steve Jobs, another early bloomer, believed that you couldn’t trust people over 30 to come up with radical innovations.

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Hillside Research Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Working for decades with Nobel Laureate Jim Watson and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on developing that renowned research campus, I also have learned that the road to scientific achievement is not a straight line between two points, but rather a meandering, eclectic journey that should encompass the arts and humanities, interdisciplinary collaboration and sociability, and even sports and outdoor pastimes, such as bird watching. Now in his 80s, Watson still plays a mean game of tennis. Science does not thrive in a sterile vacuum: the broader the interests of the inquisitor the better.

This bias towards precocity and intellectual diversity makes the job of designing science and math facilities for nascent Watsons all the more challenging and important. Today’s students are our future, and that future is near at hand. We get a few short years to inspire them so they can go out, over the ensuing decade, and nudge the world in the right direction.

How does one do that? Well, in part, you have to create excitement about science, math, and engineering: design places not simply to impart facts and figures, but flexible spaces where young people want to be, hang out after class, share ideas, and test what they have learned through real world applications. Rather than purveying “pure” or theoretical math, keep it real, as they say: engage students, for example, in using formulas to calculate the volume of greenhouse gas emissions – and how to mitigate them. And provide venues where they can show off their discoveries to the whole school and beyond.

Students need to know that learning mathematics is not an end, but a means to greater understanding of how the world works. At Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, computational mathematics is crucial to molecular genomics – as are the weekly concerts, visiting scholars, and the bucolic campus environs. I like to think that the architecture there, which is continuing the “Village for Science” vernacular ethos, contributes as well. Each of these varied facets facilitates discovery and innovation.

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Floor plan for the MICDS Center for Community.

At the Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MICDS) in Missouri, we are trying to apply these principles to a new science and math building for its Upper School, grades 9 through 12. The design commingles the classrooms for the various disciplines; the spaces are large enough to accommodate breakout areas, varied configurations, and even laboratories in some cases so that questions can be answered both verbally and tangibly. Think of your garage where you do projects – where a messy vitality inspires enlightened tinkering.

At MICDS, we are designing common spaces for the disciplines to cross-pollinate and engage the larger student body, places for robotics and for exhibiting finished work, venues to drop and roll things about, to launch stuff, to act out ideas. And just so scientists don’t monopolize all this fun, we plan to integrate the new building with the existing campus, showcasing what goes on inside. A Center for Community highlighted by an 800-seat amphitheatre will make this new science building welcoming to the entire student body and the surrounding community as well.

Science should not be pushed to the periphery or stand apart like a scholastic orphan or wallflower. The creativity and even whimsy of the humanities is relevant to the process of discovery. Similarly, a curriculum that pigeonholes science is short changing its liberal arts offerings. The two go together, like the hemispheres of the brain; we can’t pretend to understand the world without them both.

Jim Watson once said, “Science moves with the spirit of an adventure, characterized by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, will be simple as well as beautiful.” Steve Jobs said that we need places that foster creativity: as he would put it, “Why join the navy when you could be a pirate.”