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Rhodes College Keeps Flexibility In Its Design For The Sciences

Bill Dries
Daily News
 

Typically when Rhodes College erects a new building on its historic Midtown campus, it’s nearly impossible to see the difference from the rest of the gothic architecture dating back to 1925.

That is until you get inside the new $34 million Robertson Hall science building.

The science facility had its formal opening Thursday, Aug. 31, a week into the new academic year at Rhodes. And the donors as well as college administrators and students marked not only its opening but the conversion of the Briggs Hall student center into a computer sciences center with faculty offices.

And the border created by those two projects in turn, were instrumental in the design of Rhodes’ first quadrangle, named in honor of recently retired Rhodes president Bill Troutt and his wife, Carole.

On its lower level, Robertson’s technology includes a “cold room” with thick doors and a small, thick window looking into its entry along with plenty of warnings on the door. Beyond that are study nooks, DNA models as art and lots of laboratory space.

There are six teaching labs and five research labs as well as three classrooms.

Briggs has six computer labs and two research labs with three classrooms.

The general contractor for the trio of projects was Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc. of Memphis with Hanbury Inc. of Norfolk, Virginia, as the primary architect.

It’s all state of the art. But Rhodes president Marjorie Hass said the emphasis in the set of projects is “state-of-the-art pedagogy.”

“We have to keep up with changes in the way sciences are taught,” she said. “So teaching and learning in the sciences is now very experiential. Students begin by engaging in research from the very beginning.”

Robertson and Briggs are additions to the nearly 50-year-old Frazier Jelke Science Center, which will remain a science center.

“Frazier Jelke is still the house where most of our work happens in biology,” said Milton Moreland, Rhodes Dean of Faculty and a professor of religious studies. “The majority are still there. We’ve been working and renovating Frazier Jelke for several years.

“That’s going to now be a bigger priority,” he said. “And we are going to get all of those labs completely redone in the coming years. They are state of the art, but they are not as state of the art as what we just introduced at Robertson.”

The combination of the three buildings represents a shift in higher education to what Hass said is the new reality of the sciences.

“The sciences have become so interdisciplinary,” she said.

Moreland said that is the biggest growth area at Rhodes for students and could be what a majority of the school’s students are pursuing in another decade.

“There’s no one way to get into environmental science,” he said. “It is a field that needs everybody’s best thinking. So biologists and chemists are together with our political scientists and our people in history, shaping the direction of what environmental science will look like.

“So those are big growth areas,” he said. “Those are majors that Rhodes didn’t have 10 to 15 years ago. Now they are larger than we ever really expected.”

The emphasis at Briggs is on computer science in general and virtual reality in particular.

“We will have to keep updating and upgrading and making that happen because clearly, virtual reality and that type of work in the digital computer science world – that’s what a lot of our students are interested in,” Moreland said. “Our computer sciences and our biology/chemistry faculty are all in that wave. So, our virtual reality lab in this building is state of the art right now. What will it be in 10 years?”

The buildings and the quadrangle, which provides a geographic center for the campus, were seven years from planning to completion. But Moreland said the lab and classroom space is built with the certainty that what is state of the art now will change and probably change sooner rather than later.

“These buildings have been designed to be the flex space for the next 50 years of science development,” he said. “Right now they look wonderful. They will change though, even as we evolve and science evolves.”

Meanwhile, Hass is already looking to the west, on the other side of University Street.

“I think the next thing we need to think about in terms of our space planning is what we want to make of the opportunities provided to us in the space across the street we call our west campus,” she said of the old church that was once Evergreen Presbyterian Church and the old Cotton Council building west of that, which is student housing. “We are beginning to talk about how we want to understand the meaning of that space in relationship to our campus.”

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