Science by Design: Exploring the Details of Exploratory Hall

Posted: September 9, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: September 10, 2013 at 6:49 am

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By Buzz McClain

Exploratory Hall

In Exploratory Hall’s tile floor, the circles represent splashes of water droplets, the squiggles are the outline of a double helix, and the Fibonacci spiral shows up cutting through it all. The “Periodic Tables” provide a visual pun.  Photo by Alexis Glenn

There’s nothing random about Exploratory Hall.

In fact, the operative word during its five years of renovation and development was “intentionality.” The layout, the fixtures, the furnishings, the flooring, the lighting and even the wood panel in one of the three-story atriums are all intentional by design. The building, which was formerly known as Science and Tech II, is rich with subtle details that enrich the collaboration between student to professor, and student to student, while surrounding them with symbols of science.

Take a look at that wood panel. It looks like a series of small squares offset with larger squares, and for some designers, that would be decorative enough for a wall hanging. But Exploratory Hall’s panel depicts the geometric derivation of the Fibonacci spiral, in which each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. While STEM aficionados might recognize it, others will need to have it pointed out, but once seen, it’s always seen.


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The same goes for what seem to be random squiggles and circles embedded in the tile on the north atrium terrazzo floor. The circles represent splashes of water droplets, the squiggles are the outline of a double helix, and the Fibonacci spiral shows up cutting through it all. But wait, there’s more: What looks like a ring pattern is actually a section of DNA, and side views of DNA pop up in other locations.

All of these are symbolic of the elements that make up the sciences that are taught in the building, says Cathy M. Wolfe, director of campus planning. An overriding theme, she says, was to put science on display and to position the building as an intentional pathway from one section of the Fairfax Campus to the other for passersby to experience. A good example is the extensive mineral collection on exhibit in glass cases in lower level hallways; previously the specimens were kept in storage. The building also serves to connect the Johnson Center with the HUB student center, helping bring the HUB closer to campus activity.

Granite benches outside the building have memorable quotes from scientists through the ages. Photo by Alexis Glenn

“Dialogue” benches outside the building have memorable quotes from scientists through the ages. Photo by Evan Cantwell

A team—actually, a small army—of staff and faculty members, architects, and consultants spent five years brainstorming ideas that would make the new 50,000-square-foot addition to the completely renovated 100,000-square-foot Exploratory Hall not just unique but useful in teaching and learning science. A future capital project will fully renovate the newly connected neighbor, the 100,000-square-foot Planetary Hall (formerly Science and Tech I).

“All of the labs have complete audiovisual support, including the Doc Cam,” says Mason professor Larry L. Rockwood, director of the undergraduate biology program. The document camera, or Doc Cam, is a high-resolution video camera installed in the ceiling over a designated teaching area and connected to video screens around the room; a professor who wants to share a page or show a procedure to the class simply does it under the lens for all to see, in high definition.

Wood panels depicting the geometric derivation of the Fibonacci spiral are displayed in a lounge at Exploratory Hall at the Fairfax campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Wood panels depicting the geometric derivation of the Fibonacci spiral are displayed in a lounge. Photo by Alexis Glenn

“As far as design, I like the open floor plans with light coming into the labs from two sides, as well as the foyer with the interesting designs, such as the double helix,” Rockwood adds.

Rockwood, along with mathematical sciences professor Robert L. Sachs and Robinson Professor of Physics James Trefil, helped shepherd the building through the design and construction phases.

Attention to Details

Everywhere you look in the buildings your eye will fall on something deliberate, whether or not you know it. Here are a few things to look for.

  • Meeting room redundancy was reduced by including “collaboration spaces” with tables, chairs, and whiteboards—and in some cases, plasma screens—adjacent to faculty offices and in hallways. Office mobility for the academic departments was included to minimize the cost of the inevitable future relocations of faculty and staff.
  • A breath of fresh air is afforded by a second-floor, open-air, covered balcony. The sun is partially blocked by metal sunscreens, a distinctive trait of the exterior of the building. The symbols on the screens represent DNA base-pair molecules (to honor life sciences) and sine-curve patterns (emphasizing the importance of waves as a science and math phenomenon).
  • A geology rock garden at the north entrance is actually a cross-section of Virginia’s geology from different regions of the state, including limestone gravel (Tidewater); Virginia Mist granite, Arvonia slate, and Dillwyn kyanite (Piedmont); Albarene soapstone (Blue Ridge); and the hard-to-find Blacksburg limestone—aka “Hokie stones”—acquired, thanks to a relationship with the architect, from Virginia Tech.
  • In a whimsical visual pun, the custom tables in the north atrium are inscribed with symbols from the Periodic Table, representing chemistry. Other tables are adorned with tree graphics (representing biology). Fabric in non-lab science college classrooms is embedded with abstracted amoebas.
  • The V-shaped benches on the north lawn are intended for outdoor classes and student activities; they’re equipped with electrical outlets to power a  variety of technologies.
  • Five groups of “dialogue benches,” etched with quotes selected by members of the science colleges, are grouped so that the benches have a philosophical “dialogue.”

Compared to classrooms where many of the sciences were taught in previous years, biology laboratory/research specialist Alyson Smith says, “We’ve moved out of the 1970s and into the future.”

Write to Buzz McClain at bmcclai2@gmu.edu

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