New Conn College science center debuts today

Lecturer Kristine Hardeman works with sophomore Jeff Basch Friday during a lab at the new science center at Conn College in New London.
Lecturer Kristine Hardeman works with sophomore Jeff Basch Friday during a lab at the new science center at Conn College in New London. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

New London - Working in a bright, spacious lab specially equipped for computer sciences, Connecticut College student Jim O'Connor made a few adjustments Friday afternoon to a robotic arm he'd designed, preparing for a demonstration he would give today as part of ceremonies dedicating the college's new science center.

"It's a project for my senior thesis, using EEG (electroencephalography) aided by artificial intelligence to control this robotic arm," he said, modeling the headset he will wear to enable signals from his brain to move the robot.

The lab where he will give the demonstration is "a big change" - for the better - he said, over the space where he and fellow students worked during his first three years at Conn. Nicknamed "the shed," it was a cramped, uninviting space across campus, he said, not the sort of place he'd want to invite visitors.

But today from 2 to 3 p.m., O'Connor, faculty and other students will help conclude the dedication ceremonies by showcasing the kinds of work they're doing in the new building. The dedication begins at 11:30 a.m. on Centennial Plaza, a small landscaped area next to the new building.

Throughout the new center - at $25.3 million the largest building project the 101-year-old college has ever undertaken - stark contrasts with the old facility can be seen. The center, at 21,000 square feet, consists of a 14,000-square-foot addition to fully renovated spaces in New London Hall, the college's first building.

Designed to be environmentally friendly, it is heated and cooled by a geothermal system and includes many energy and water-saving features. It houses 13 faculty and labs, 21 offices, a greenhouse, seminar rooms and numerous study and work spaces for the botany, biology and computer science departments.

"This was a very deliberate integration, because some of the best science is coming out of integrating the disciplines," said Jean Curtin Tempel, a trustee emeritus, former vice chairwoman of Conn's board of trustees and one of the center's major benefactors.

Page Owen, associate professor of botany and faculty shepard of the project, said that aligning the three departments will foster cross-disciplinary projects in fields such as informatics and the use of computer graphics to depict complex plant and animal structures. With antiquated design and inadequate work and storage space, the old facility detracted from the college's science programs, he said.

"Students and faculty (who chose to come to Conn) had to make a leap of faith," Owen said.

Currently, about 20 percent of Conn students major in one of the sciences, said Amy Martin, college spokeswoman. Conn doesn't plan to expand its 1,900-member student body, she said, but would like to attract more students interested in the sciences.

The new building will make the college more attractive to faculty as well as students, Owen added.

"So many of our peer institutions have done projects like this," he said.

j.benson@theday.com

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