Built for the block: Russell Science Center

Cornell College’s first academic building designed for the block plan is changing the way sciences are taught on campus.

Shanata in the classroom
Windows help dissolve the wall between the classroom and the lab to provide great flexibility for teaching the sciences.

Not only is the new Russell Science Center a stunning structure with abundant natural light and gorgeous views, but it dissolves the wall between the classroom and the lab to provide greater flexibility for the chemistry and biology faculty who teach there.

The result: Our students are maximizing integration of the material, which is crucial during our fast-paced 18-day blocks.

The way we teach science has changed dramatically since West Science opened in 1976 just prior to the implementation of One Course At A Time. A shift has occurred from lecture format to a self-directed discovery model. And unlike a semester system where students often enroll in two different sections, one for lecture and one for lab, at Cornell we need the flexibility of linked labs and classrooms where faculty can flow freely from class to lab or design a combined classroom-lab activity.

Belou Quimby conducts research
Belou Quimby ’19 conducts independent research in the versatile chemistry research space with room for three or four research groups at a time.

The lab experience is so important for understanding what science is really about. That’s why lab spaces were the major emphasis as faculty helped design Russell Science Center.   

“Our new classrooms and teaching lab spaces allow a seamless transition for students and faculty to work together,” says Professor of Biology Craig Tepper. “Now students can spread out their work in the classroom and easily transition back and forth from lab to classroom.”

The biology department’s new “light labs” are open, flexible, and can be quickly adapted to switch from a standard classroom to a laboratory. This provides opportunities for students and faculty to work and interact in a way that is most conducive to learning.

After teaching her first block in the building, William Deskin Professor of Chemistry Cindy Strong says she noticed that students appreciated having the lab right next door and experienced less downtime moving between class and lab.

She also noted that, for the first time, there’s an advanced lab space that will not have to double as the primary chemistry research space.

Chemistry Professor Craig Teague checks in with students as they work through a class project.

Craig Teague requested a large window between the advanced lab and the adjacent classroom, and we anticipated that the window would allow a faculty member to keep an eye on both the lab and the classroom as students move back and forth. What I didn’t anticipate” she says, “was the view from the lab through the windows in the adjacent classroom. It’s quite unusual for a lab to have a spectacular view! An added bonus of the window: We can close the shades on the classroom side and draw on the lab window as extra whiteboard space.”

Russell Science Center is part of the $35 million Greater > Than campaign science facilities project, which also encompasses renovating West Science and two floors of Law Hall. It launched with the largest cash gift in college history—$20 million from Jean Russell ’65, a researcher who made important discoveries about bone disease. When the project is complete Cornell’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) space will increase by nearly 50,000 square feet, with room to grow as enrollment increases. To that end, the stunning building is a focal point in recruiting students and future faculty.

Read the reflections of Chemistry Professor Jai Shanta ’05 about teaching in Russell Science Center.

Martin Rosenfeld ’20 says Russell Science Center is ideal for showcasing the sciences. As an admission tour guide and biochemistry and molecular biology major, he should know.

Interior of Russell Science Center
The new study spaces are what Martin Rosenfeld ’20 calls “an oasis for my friends and I where we can comfortably isolate ourselves from the world to study, but not be too far from professor offices.”

“With the effective layout of the new building and the wonderful use of glass walls and windows on the interior of the building not only are we able to show off students’ experiments, but we are also able to show off the flawless integration of classroom and lab that happens on the block plan,” he says.

Russell Science Center sits conveniently next to West Science, encouraging academic synergies and collaborations. By design, the building draws students from all disciplines to study in small group study rooms and, especially, in the open lounge areas with spectacular views from floor-to-ceiling windows.  

Everyone, not just science students, benefits. A science course is required of all students, and the common areas and study spaces are open to all.

Chemistry students conduct their labs under spacious fume hoods. One lab has 12 8-foot hoods, “more than I’ve seen in a single room anywhere,” says Professor Craig Teague.

“My favorite thing about the new building is all of the incredible study areas throughout that take advantage of the stunning views of Mount Vernon,” says biology and biochemistry and molecular biology major Andrew Hanson ’19. “And non-science students can take full advantage of the spectacular study spaces.”

Chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology major Allison Eikenberry ’21 says her favorite feature is the small group study rooms. “You can write on the walls!” she says. “The study rooms with whiteboard walls allow students to get messy, make mistakes, and start over again and again.”

Even Tepper cites the study areas as his favorite building feature.

“The student areas and alcoves are my favorite features because these spaces are not designed to be specifically programmed, but are designed to promote study, interaction, and collaboration,” he says. “These spaces are open and inviting, not to mention some of the south-facing views are spectacular. It is easy for students to move from study spaces to seek faculty assistance.”

A student conducts a biology experiment in the aquatics lab.

Biology faculty in Russell Science Center are excited to use special features, such as the mudroom and storage space for field supplies, an aquatics lab, and an anatomy and physiology lab with up to two cadavers.

Each department designed a collaborative student-faculty research lab where multiple professors and students work in close proximity. This enhances Cornell’s long tradition of faculty-student research, pioneered by the late Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Bill Deskin. The quality of the research facilities is unusual for an institution of our size.

The biology research space is a versatile, open laboratory shared by three or four research groups at a time. “Students can work side by side with faculty, and the open research lab allows students to collaborate and share their findings,” says Tepper.

The chemistry department’s research lab provides similar synergies.

“I’ve always enjoyed sharing a research lab with other chemistry faculty members and their students. Students and faculty all learn a lot about chemistry from seeing what others are doing,” says Strong. “In addition, faculty members learn from each other about teaching and mentoring, since we each have our own way of approaching research with students.”

Many of Cornell’s biology, chemistry, and biochemistry and molecular biology majors are pursuing health professions. Because of this, the Dimensions Program for Health Professions is the first office visible when entering the building.

Mark Kendall works with a student
Mark Kendall, associate director of the Dimensions Program for Health Profession, uses one of the many gathering spaces to meet informally with a student.

“My window looks right out to the entrance doors. I can see every student who comes and goes,” says Mark Kendall, associate director of Dimensions. “They know if I’m here and that visibility is really useful. It’s a great congregation place for students. And it’s a common nexus our students route through.”

BWBR architects approached the project with a goal of creating a state-of-the-art, highly technical, high-performance science building. At the same time, it needed to fit into Cornell’s National Register of Historic Places campus setting.

“Russell Science Center respects the character of the campus with a sensitive interpretation of its architectural themes: Materiality and color, scale, patterns, and proportion,” says Craig Peterson, design leader and BWBR principal. “The architectural language of the new science building balances a modern expression with elements that build connections to the campus and its history.”

Trustee and lead donor Jean Russell ’65 and her husband, Bob Childers, drove from Michigan for the first day of classes Nov. 26.

“Wow, let’s go for it! The technology of sciences necessitated a building with multifunctional enhanced use and we have it now,” Russell announced during a brief ceremony. “Enjoy and excel!”


The Greater > Than science facilities campaign goal of $35 million has now been fully funded. What’s next?

  • West Science Hall renovations are in process. Physics and engineering will return to the building and be joined by the departments of computer science and mathematics and statistics.
  • Law Hall renovations begin in June. Kinesiology will expand to occupy the first two floors and the psychology department will also acquire additional space. The college gains general classroom and faculty office spaces in both Law and West.
  • West and Law halls will open Aug. 26, the first day of classes for the 2019-20 school year.
  • An extension of the Ped Mall will improve access to West Science, South Hall, and Russell Science Center, as well as create a new eastern entrance to campus.
  • The Science Facilities Project dedication is at 3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, during Homecoming.