Over the last twenty years, the Portsmouth Abbey School campus has experienced tremendous change. Improvements have been made to a variety of non-academic facilities, from residential Houses to faculty housing to the squash and fitness center. These buildings were all constructed with the future in mind: flexible space, room for an expanded student body and staff, and the ability to integrate more activities into the daily lives of students. Now, the School has the opportunity to apply this process to its academic future – and that future starts with science.
“We want to make a bold statement that we are serious about our future,” says Chris Behnke ’81, chair of the Board of Regents, “and we believe that a new science building is the catalyst to securing that future.”
In order to anticipate the future needs of science at Portsmouth Abbey, we need to understand its past. Of course, St. Benedict influences all of the work the School undertakes, from education to prayer: “Ora et Labora.” And the School’s first headmaster, Father Hugh Diman, wrote in the 1942 Raven of the importance of science in the School’s curriculum. But perhaps the most influential figure for science at the Abbey was Dom Leo van Winkle ’39: a student, monk, scientist, teacher, and headmaster for the Abbey. His interest in science developed as a student at the Abbey, and he went on to earn a chemical engineering degree from Yale. In 1945, he was chosen to work on the Manhattan Project, which shaped his views on the relationship between science, humanity, and morality.
When Fr. Leo accepted the position of headmaster at the Abbey in 1957, he remained chairman of the Science Department. He was instrumental in the construction of many buildings that remain at the center of campus today. The academic crown jewel during his tenure was the current science building – a building that demonstrated the harmonious relationship between religion and science. That relationship remains strong today at the Abbey. “Our church and science building currently face each other across the Holy Lawn,” Dr. Michael Bonin, the Dom Damian Kearney Chair in English, says. “In one, we encounter the book of God’s word, and another, the book of God’s works. They tell the same story in different ways. Portsmouth Abbey School is unique in that we present those two books in one story to our students.”
To continue presenting this story in a manner and space consistent with the School’s mission, the time has now come for a new science building. Our current science facilities – three laboratories and two classrooms, with limited space for flexible study – are 50 years old and were simply not designed for today’s pedagogy, which includes expanded lab work and a substantial amount of technology. Over the last 50 years, the average number of science classes taken per student has doubled from two to four, the student body has increased by over 60%, and science faculty has more than quadrupled. In addition, the emergence of post-AP courses such as Green Chemistry and Advanced Topics in Physics require even more hands-on, laboratory-based learning. For all of these reasons, the School commissioned Architerra, an architecture, community design, and development advisory firm in Boston, to design a distinctive new science building that both reflects the campus’s wonderful architectural heritage and meets the needs for modern science. “This building is designed to secure the academic future of the School with pedagogically informed science classrooms and laboratories that meet the demands of a flexible 21st century education,” says Ellen Watts, principal architect for the project. “Sited on the Holy Lawn and designed as part of an architectural composition with the St Thomas More Library and Burden Classroom Building, the new Science Building harmonizes with the distinct campus aesthetic established by modernist architect Pietro Belluschi.”
The new building will offer seven laboratories and seven classrooms, each equipped with advanced technology and the flexibility to evolve and anticipate future needs in the rapidly changing world of science. It will also work in harmony with the science department’s philosophy of teaching: open inquiry. “Open inquiry is messy in a good way,” Dr. Stephen Zins, AP biology and chemistry teacher, says. “Students are wrong a lot, and they need to be comfortable with making mistakes. And they need a building that will support that. They need to be able to store experiments without disruption, and they need an area to access in their free time that doesn’t interfere with other classes going on.” This building will offer the space, like the Student Project Lab pictured above, necessary for students to continually work on experiments without disruption – enabling them to be scientists, not just take science.
The wood and steel-framed, 34,000 square foot structure will complement the existing Belluschi architecture on campus, and adhere to the highly efficient low-emissions green standards that began with the building of St. Brigid’s House in 2007. Its eco-friendly design will meet LEED Gold design specifications and its flexible-use interior will ensure that the School can remain abreast of the rapidly-changing academic landscape in the sciences. The new science building not only offers space and technology for today’s students, but it also fits in with the mission of St. Benedict. Benedictine education stresses the formation of the whole person – mind, body, and soul – rather than just intellect alone. The state-of-the-art science education facility will be annexed to the east end of the Burden Classroom Building, extending from the Holy Lawn north toward the football field and track. Its location will allow for an exchange between intellectual pursuits, philosophical questions and answers, and nourishment of the spirit.
This project was born from more than a sheer need for space, however. The science building will revolutionize the student experience, revitalize the campus, and create an intellectual awakening that is so critical for growth in knowledge and grace. And it’s not just for science students.
Science and humanities have a strong connection at the Abbey and this connection will be strengthened by the new commons, pictured above, that will join the science building to the Burden classroom building. This sunny, active two-story space will serve as the crossroads between the sciences and the humanities. It will be unlike any room currently found on campus and will provide a place for all students and faculty to gather throughout the school day to work, exchange ideas, and collaborate.
Ms. Janice Brady, chemistry instructor, further explains why the science building is critical for the success of our community: “The students here are motivated and fun to work with. The new building will make it easier for them to work – we won’t have to push labs back to set up new ones, and students will be able to do more independent research.” In addition, the building’s design offers up room for flexibility in the curriculum: new classes will be offered, greater collaboration between the sciences will occur and long-term research projects will flourish.
One of the most important Benedictine educational values is the value of community. St. Benedict understood that excellent and effective teaching and learning require an atmosphere of mutual support and genuine love. Since its inception, Portsmouth Abbey School has embraced these ideals. Teachers are more than instructors; they are houseparents, mentors, coaches, and extended family members. Families are raised on this campus alongside students, fostering the personal growth of all who step foot on the campus. In short, the community of the School is the reason for its success. The new science building strengthens the community and ensures the School’s reputation as a place to both ask the questions and find the answers. “I believe I was called to the Abbey to teach,” science department head Robert Sahms says. “This has been a wonderful place for me to have my career and for us to raise our family. I hope that the Abbey can continue to be one of the top boarding schools in the country, and certainly this building will help that to remain a reality.”
At Portsmouth Abbey School, there is a strong focus on the wisdom of the past: students study classical languages, history, and canonical literature. We also strive to teach students the means for future discoveries, whether in the core sciences or in offshoots like robotics, genetics, green chemistry, and more. And according to Headmaster Daniel McDonough, this building will help make both possible. “As Father Hugh Diman pointed out over 70 years ago, science is important as anything we do at Portsmouth Abbey. If we want our students to change the world, what better place for our Mission to have an impact than in a discipline that many fear has no room for God?”