New Wave of Science Education

The Interactive Science Forum at The Latin School of Chicago is a new educational hub for innovation and interaction, investigation and inquiry. Fusing together the creative processes of science and art, the 2,200-square-foot learning center is designed to provide students hands-on access to scientific concepts and new technologies, and perspectives into the beauty, complexity and preservation of our natural world.

Plan for a Science Core by Designing Together
Like a complex problem, designing the Forum required collaboration, conversation and concentration. The science department knew exactly what it did not want: predictable or distracting hallways or public space. As design specialists in experience-based learning, Architecture Is Fun facilitated envisioning sessions with students, teachers, administrators, building architects and facility managers. Nagle Hartray Architecture also served as the architects for the building project.

Critical listening and design dialogue allowed planning for inevitable change in curriculum, learning platforms and project lifespan as scientific understandings and technology evolve. Making room for the future, the Forum is designed to permit effective teaching and engaged learning over time.

Put Theory Into Practice
Going beyond typical architectural programs based in 2D square footage, type of space, equipment definitions, Architecture Is Fun programmed in 4D: what it might feel like; what might be done or tested within it; what stories it might tell. Responding to the desire expressed by alumni and parents to explore art plus science together, and applying Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligence Theory,” the Forum is designed in multiple dimensions, engaging science students and those not pre-inclined to the sciences. It is a fascinating, student-directed space that appeals to the young artist, mathematician, scientist and computer geek. Learning spills out from laboratories and classrooms into the Forum’s public space. Filled with art, science, technology and project-based exhibits, the Forum is a catalyst for informal encounter and creative alchemy.

Learn From Museums by Thinking Hands-On, Minds-On
Every element, surface, plane, material and finish of the Forum is designed to promote learning and afford students opportunities to take control of information, interaction and communication through technology and art-based platforms. The iconic Omni-Globe is a spherical projection surface featuring real-time interactive media for individual and group investigation. Flat screen monitors on walls display presentations, instructional aids and local and global news.

Materials, finishes, surfaces and fixtures were selected equally for aesthetic and durability/maintainability. It was imperative that the Forum be beautiful and captivating, while holding up to the tough love students give to environments they inhabit. The designers listened to facility managers regarding specifications and materials for maintenance and sustainability. The resulting palette reflects technology and engineering in its innovative design and strength.

Reveal How Stuff Works
Students and teachers wanted the “real stuff.” The Forum uses every surface to communicate real art plus science. Gold conduit on ceilings, Edison-style lamping and huge geometric globes generate a model of fusion. On resilient flooring, the Golden Mean and a one-meter grid encourage hands-on experimentation with measurement, kinetic energy and laws of motion and inertia. Three niches leading to classrooms display a saltwater aquarium (biology), salt crystal growing shelves (chemistry) and a George Rhodes Ball Machine in the manner of inventor Rube Goldberg (physics).

Add Agility and Attitude
The design responds to teachers’ concerns about flexibility and fidgeting. Risers are designed in two heights for formal and informal seating. An array of configurations offer council ring, auditorium style, freeform and parked. Each riser is a Baltic birch cabinet of curiosity, some artfully lined with specimens, skulls and butterfly spirals for “look closer” observation. Others feature dry-erase surfacing for immediate problem solving. The science lounge adjacent to the teacher lounge is a bridge for students seeking extra help from staff that doubles in functionality as a private, quiet space for small groups.

Unite Disciplines
A series of graphic murals act as viewports bringing concepts of quantity, scale, space and perspective within student grasp. Serving as both visual features and thought-provoking teaching tools, the murals are the result of the creative collaboration of science faculty, architects and photographer Doug Fogelson. Inspired by the Eames’ film, “Powers of Ten,” Fogelson exposed everyday objects to colored light, providing equivalent imagery in multiple exposures and at varying magnitudes of powers of 10.

Two additional wave artworks of artscience surround students ascending the curved stair. Reuben Margolin’s “Nimbus Wave” was commissioned as a kinetic, site-specific artwork to activate the stairwell and generate excitement. Reminiscent of the movement of water, the sculpture ripples with drama and engineering prowess. Complementing Margolin’s artwork, Fogelson’s second mural, “Ventura,” lines the stairwell and immerses students and staff in the visual and emotional impact of a multiple exposure photograph of ocean waves as a force of nature.

Value In, Not Out
Building out the Forum only cost 10 percent more than the public spaces and hallways on the other three floors of the building. Instead of valuing engineering out of the project, the Latin School wisely added value. They created an opportunity and technology-rich center. For that 10 percent, there is an oft-needed additional classroom, speaker and presentation space and enhanced exploratory area. Representing the next wave for science education, the Forum is immersed with learning and aesthetic investigation for all.

Peter J. Exley, FAIA, and Sharon Exley, MAAE, founded the Chicago architectural firm Architecture Is Fun in 1994 to design substantive and relevant environments for learning and play, and can be reached at