By Ed Brennen
Protected inside 5-foot inflatable bubbles, students from the Kennedy College of Sciences looked like giant billiard balls smashing into each other on the front lawn of Cumnock Hall. Little did they know that one of the people they were colliding with was their new dean, Noureddine Melikechi.
Melikechi, who officially began as dean on Oct. 1, used the school’s second annual Block Party as a fun and informal way to introduce himself to students, faculty and staff from across Kennedy College — and the university.
“This is an absolutely wonderful opportunity to get to know the school, just to look at people smiling everywhere around you,” Melikechi said as he made his way through the packed Cumnock Hall auditorium, where all six science departments and nearly two dozen student organizations set up tables with experiments, games and giveaways.
The Algerian-born Melikechi joins UMass Lowell from Delaware State University, where he had been vice president for research, innovation and economic development. An atomic, molecular and optical physicist by training with more than 30 years of higher education experience, Melikechi said he’s spending his first days and weeks on campus “introducing myself, hearing from people and getting to know who’s who.”
“Everyone has been so helpful for me in the transition,” he said.
At the table for the UMass Lowell chapter of the American Chemical Society, Melikechi shook hands with Aly Kogan, a junior forensic chemistry major from Winchester who was showing partygoers how to make Silly Putty from a mixture of Elmer’s Glue, water and a “cross-linking solution of Borax and cornstarch.”
“It’s awesome that he’s walking around to all the tables and getting to know all the different departments,” said Kogan, the ACS chapter’s historian and social media director. “Meeting him like this opens up a lot of opportunities for everyone.”
The Block Party was the brainchild of Prof. Mark Hines (the school’s former acting dean) and Asst. Dean Stephen Norton, who were looking for a way to help develop a stronger sense of community within the college and among its departments.
“When people think of sciences, they think of nerds in the corner working in a lab, never going out in the sun. But in reality, we’re party animals,” Hines said with a smile. “This is a way to showcase that for everybody.”
Last year’s inaugural Block Party, which coincided with the naming of the Kennedy College of Sciences in recognition of alumni William J. and John F. Kennedy, drew nearly 1,500 people. Norton estimated that this year’s event, which once again benefited from perfect weather, may have seen a 30 percent increase in attendance.
“One of the best things about the event is the teamwork among the students, how they come together and put on a great show for the university community. It really helps build the esprit de corps among the college,” Norton said on Cumnock’s festive front lawn, where students snacked on fried dough, popcorn and ice cream, sat for caricature artists and learned about other organizations across campus while student DJs provided the soundtrack.
One of the loudest tables was the Society of Environmental Scientists, where guests (including Melikechi) smashed golf ball-sized geodes with a hammer, revealing crystals inside that they could keep.
“For a little department like ours, this is a great opportunity to show everybody that we’re here,” said Lori Weeden, a lecturer in Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
Liz Cole, an administrative assistant in the dean’s office, was among the 120 volunteers who helped organize the event. She said the only hitch was that they couldn’t convince Melikechi to climb into the always-popular dunk tank on the front lawn.
“We tried to make it a ‘Dunk the Dean,’ but he said, ‘What did I ever do to you guys?’ ” Cole said with a laugh. “Maybe next year.”
One person who did climb into the dunk tank was Ryan Fisk, a senior civil engineering major from Chester, Mass.
“I just started talking a big game, so I had to back it up and go in there,” said Fisk, who quickly found himself submerged. “It wasn’t too cold, so it wasn’t bad.”
Back in dry clothes, but with a wet head of hair, Fisk said the only downside was that he had to head to class in five minutes.
Which class? Fluid mechanics, of course.