Down to a Science Center
John McDonald hit the pause button ever so briefly in his conversation with BusinessWest and went to the window.
He then scanned the parking lot for his pick-up truck, found it, and gestured toward it. “There … that was our other lab space — my truck,” said McDonald, an assistant professor in the Environmental Science Department at Westfield State University. “Occasionally, we’d have field labs, such as animal necropsies, and we’d have to do those on the back of the truck, parked next to Route 20. We had zero functional lab space.”
The window he pointed from is one of many in the spacious classroom/lab area dedicated to Environmental Science at the Dr. Nettie Maria Stevens Science and Innovation Center at WSU, which opened last fall and was officially dedicated earlier this month.
The space represents everything this department didn’t have before — especially ample room and modern facilities such as a wet lab complete with drains in the floor. And while this department represents perhaps the most dramatic ‘before-and-after,’ ‘night-and-day’ scenario when it comes to the new building, there are many such stories to be told here.
Like the one the Department of Nursing and Allied Health can tell.
Marcia Scanlon, chair of that department, said that, prior to the opening of the new center, the Nursing Department made do with some classroom space on campus and, for hands-on skills work, a room with three hospital beds and two simulators in what amounted to rented space at Baystate Noble Hospital, about a mile from the campus.
Now, Nursing has a spacious suite of facilities in the 54,000-square-foot facility, including three simulation rooms, an eight-bed health-assessment room, an eight-bed nursing-skills lab, two control rooms, four high-fidelity mannequins, and 12 additional low- and mid-fidelity mannequins representing adults, children, infants, and newborns.
All this represents quite an upgrade, not just in space and convenience (students no longer have to make their way to Baystate Noble), but in overall learning opportunities, said Scanlon.
“By having all this on campus in this center, that gives students better access,” Scanlon explained. “It gives them better visibility, better access, and more opportunities to come for extra help if they need it.”
Jennifer Hanselman, professor and chair of the Biology Department, and Christopher Masi, chair of the Department of Physical and Chemical Sciences, told somewhat similar stories.
They, like Scanlon and McDonald, said a tremendous amount of research and input gathering, including visits to many other health and science centers in this region, were undertaken before the architects and construction crews went to work.
“We affiliated very closely with Springfield Technical Community College, which is a renowned simulation center for its Nursing and Allied Health,” said Scanlon, as she discussed just one example of this process. “We went and toured there to look at their technology and their equipment, and how they integrate it — how often do they bring students to use it, and how do they use it? We made several trips there, and they actually came here, put hard hats on, and walked through our space to give us advice.”
Those exercises have yielded a facility that takes WSU to a new, much higher level in terms of its facilities, learning opportunities, and ability to recruit top students.
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest went inside the new science center to get a feel for what it means to those departments now housed there, and the university itself.
As WSU cut the ribbon on the new center on May 5, a good amount of time was spent explaining just who Dr. Nettie Maria Stevens was. And such a discourse was needed, because most in attendance — not to mention the students now doing work in the facility — don’t know the story.
And they should.
Stevens completed four years of coursework at what was known then as the Westfield Normal School in only two years. In 1905, she published a series of papers in which she demonstrated that the sex of an offspring is determined by the chromosomes it inherits from its parents. Her discovery had an immeasurable impact on science and society; however, despite the significance of her work, Stevens’ notoriety went unheralded even as her male colleagues received recognition.
It is fitting, then, that the school named the center after her, said speakers at the ribbon cutting, especially in light of the role the facility will play in advancing a statewide strategy in promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, especially with women.
At WSU, women comprise 51% of the student population, said a spokesperson for the university, and within the school’s STEM majors, there has been 69% growth in male majors and an impressive 109% increase in female majors over the past 10 years. (Nationally, only 29% of the science and engineering workforce is female.)
The new science and innovation center should only help improve upon those numbers, said the educators who spoke with BusinessWest, noting that the facility features state-of-the-art facilities and interactive classrooms, with an emphasis on collaborative learning.
Translation: the Environmental Science Department has come a very long way from the back of John McDonald’s pickup truck. And the same can be said for the other departments that now call the center home.
Elaborating, McDonald said his department had a small classroom in Wilson Hall, where most science programs were housed, some counter space and cabinets, and “a hood that didn’t work and a walk-in freezer that didn’t work, and no workspace other than a collecting hallway to another classroom that was about 10 feet long.
“It was pretty meager,” he went on, adding that environmental science is a relatively new major, one that now has considerable space in which to grow.
“Getting this room, and the adjacent workroom and storeroom with a working walk-in freezer, has been a huge boon to what we’re able to do with our students,” he said of the large space now occupied by his department. “The space doubles as a teaching classroom, but we can get it as dirty as we want with soil samples, water samples, or wildlife samples.”
Meanwhile, the Nursing Department has undergone a similarly dramatic transformation through its new facilities.
Indeed, as she offered a tour of the suite, Scanlon showed off a host of amenities that were just not available to students at Baystate Noble.
These include the wide array of simulators, representing everything from newborns to a pregnant women to a senior citizen, complete with a hearing aid. These simulators can take the role of either gender — “they all come with wigs and interchangeable parts; I can make them ‘Bob,’ and I can make them ‘Dorothy,’” said Scanlon — and present students with myriad medical conditions and problems, from high blood pressure to a skin rash to heart palpitations.
There were also the control rooms guiding work with those simulators (at Noble, an educator would work from behind a curtain), as well as a ‘medication-simulation room,’ which, as that name suggests, allows students practice with retrieving and dispensing medication.
And then, there are the large, eight-bed health-assessment room and nursing-skills lab. Designed to replicate conditions in a hospital, where nurses would obviously be caring for multiple patients at a time, these facilities provide learning opportunities simply not available at Noble.
“I think this is the beginning of something big,” she said while describing what the new facility means in terms of education opportunities, using a phrase that everyone we spoke with would echo. “We’re just trying to learn the technology and see how to implement it. But in the future, this will be transforming; we’ll have inter-professional education, and we’ll be able to do things using this technology that we weren’t able to do before. And it will provide a higher degree of safety because we have the actual equipment the hospitals have.”
Masi used similar language as he talked about the facilities dedicated to the Department of Physical and Chemical Sciences, noting, as others did, that the Science and Innovation Center represents a significant upgrade.
“Our new facilities provide us with a safer space to work in,” he explained. “We can now deal with more students at a given time, and we can work with them in a safer environment.”
Elaborating, he said there were 144 students enrolled in the General Chemistry classes in the new facility and roughly 80 in Organic Chemistry, both sizable increases.
“By moving from one building to the next, we can get more students in, which is important, because other majors are requiring Organic Chemistry,” he explained, adding that, beyond sheer capacity, the new space creates a more collaborative learning environment. “We’re excited to have the space and to be able to get to some of the things we’ve been slowly working on in the past.”
Hanselman, meanwhile, said the new space brings similar improvements and new opportunities for the Biology Department, which currently has roughly 230 students enrolled in that major.
“The modernized lab facilities offer us the opportunity to certainly work and prepare our students more effectively,” she explained. “We have a goal of working with our students in the scientific process; we emphasize research experience, and we planned this space accordingly.”
As examples, she pointed to two dedicated labs and a tissue-culture facility.
“Those lab spaces are never scheduled for classes; they’re used only for student research,” she explained. “This is giving us a chance to really work with students and develop their skills.
“These labs are designed in a way to promote inquiry-based instruction for those 100- and 200-level lab courses,” she went on, adding that they provide an environment conducive to problem solving and critical thinking.
As noted earlier, Scanlon was speaking for everyone when she said the first year of activity at the new Science and Innovation Center was merely the beginning of something big.
Something much bigger than McDonald’s pickup truck. Something that, as many of those we spoke with said, will be transforming.
Something to which Dr. Nettie Maria Stevens would be proud to lend her name.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org