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Modernizing Facilities

Facilities of the Future

The bricks-and-mortar infrastructure of community colleges has not nearly kept pace with increases in student enrollments.

Not only are colleges bursting at the proverbial seams, but, according to the American Graduation Initiative, many two-year institutions "face large needs due to deferred maintenance or lack the modern facilities and equipment needed to train students in technical and other growing fields. Insufficient classroom space can force students to delay needed courses and reduce completion rates." As part of the initiative, President Obama is proposing a new $2.5 billion fund to catalyze $10 billion in community college facility investments that will "expand the colleges' ability to meet employer and student needs." One Illinois community college is already fixing its focus on the future, revamping its classrooms to provide top-notch training for 21st century jobs.

Facilities of the Future

Harper College's virtual hospital unit

THE DESIRE TO "DO SOMETHING THAT COULD BE ON THE CUTTING EDGE" of jobs training led Chicago-area Harper College to renovate 4,360 square feet of existing shell space in its Avanté Center for Science, Health Careers, and Emerging Technologies into a laboratory for its degree program in nanotechnology, says Sally Griffith, assistant vice president for career programs. "As a college, we were looking to get into something that was an emerging technology, and nanoscience goes across all of the sciences." The science has applications in numerous industries, including manufacturing, biotechnology, and healthcare, and is proving particularly relevant to the new greencollar work force. Nanoengineering is being used to develop alternative fuels, including ethanol, low-cost LED lighting, and coating for super-efficient solar panels. As such, the demand for skilled technicians is high: The National Science Foundation estimates the industry will create 2 million new jobs by 2015.

Harper's two-year degree in nanotechnology, which launched in the fall of 2008, is the first such program offered by a community college in the state of Illinois. The new space, completed this fall, is a state-of-the-art nanoscience lab, complete with a Hitachi scanning electron microscope, an NT-MDT atomic force microscope, and a device that allows students to lay down nanoscale layers of material. Having such sophisticated technology in the classroom allows students to collaborate with local area companies that are incorporating the "tiny science" into some pretty profound work. "We're working with a company close by here that is developing very tiny little motors that will carry medication to the spot on somebody's body that needs it. Can you imagine if you did chemotherapy just to the part that needed it rather than poisoning a whole body?" marvels Griffith.

Walking the Walk

Steven Sachs"ANOTHER KEY TECHNOLOGY piece to consider is simulations in the sciences. We just cannot open enough seats in traditional labs. The high cost of good labs is not only space and equipment, but also providing for materials and safety. If we could get a sufficient body of simulations based on good principles of instructional design, simulations that students could do any place, any time-- not in a dedicated science lab-- the students would probably learn more science and we could actually expand the number of students we work with while saving costs."

-- Steven Sachs, vice president, instructional and information technology, Northern Virginia Community College

The facility does have some limitations, however. Harper can't match the research power of a huge research university, admits Griffith, which is why the nanotechnology lab was designed as a smart classroom, complete with capabilities for multimedia, online learning, and remote collaboration with other institutions. Harper students can even operate equipment located at Penn State and the University of Minnesota, virtually. (UM is a partner in the National Science Foundation grant that Harper received to launch nanotechnology in the Midwest; the other grant partners include Dakota County Technical College [MN], Chippewa Valley Technical College [WI], Lansing Community College [MI], North Dakota State College of Science, and Minnesota State Community and Technical College.) "Students can send a sample in [for testing in labs at Penn State or UM] and watch what happens on a video camera," says Samuel Levenson, assistant professor and nano-science coordinator at Harper. In addition, Team-Viewer remote-access software allows students at partner school College of Lake County (IL) to access the instruments at Harper.

Simulations for Students

Biotech isn't the only area predicting massive job growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for registered nurses is expected to grow faster than all occupations and generate the largest number of new jobs for any field. That's why Harper has also focused attention on its nursing program, which is in the final stages of a renovation to create a virtual hospital for its students.

Graduation Toolkit

When Harper lab and simulation coordinator Barbara Gawron proposed recreating a hospital unit at the school-- complete with nurse's station, patient rooms, designated specialty areas, and talking mannequins (called simulators)-- Cynthia Luxton, dean of the health careers division, jumped at the idea. In a typical nursing school scenario, explains Luxton, you walk into a large, open lab where different equipment is available to students. "It's not what they're going to do when they walk into a patient's room at the hospital." Harper nursing students already use simulations in all four semesters of the Associate Degree Nursing program-- the faculty even use it for pre-program testing to ensure students are competent in certified nursing assistant skills-- so by making the experience even more realistic, the department hopes to truly engage its students. The new space will be multi-disciplinary; students in other medical technician programs (ultrasound, general diagnostic, graphic technology) also will use the new virtual hospital for training.

The physical renovation of the space will mostly involve constructing wall dividers to create the look and feel of a real hospital. What will require the most work is integrating all the new technology into the space. In addition to Laerdal and Gaumard simulators which, depending on the level of model purchased, can even be used to draw blood and check levels, the new virtual hospital will include a computerized system for charting medical records, nursing call lights, videotaping so that instructors can see students work during simulations, iPod Touches used as clinical-reference tools, and a Pyxis computerized medication-administration system from CareFusion.

"Students are going to walk into a space that looks just like a hospital, because we want them to make decisions, we want them to problem-solve; and if they do make a mistake, it's going to be in a safe environment, rather than [in] a clinical area that's very busy and hectic," says Gawron. "We can control the situations and what they're going to encounter." One advantage of this regulated environment is that instructors can design simulations to mimic what's happening in society. "I could totally see that we could have an H1N1 epidemic in our hospital," says Gawron. "What we're seeing trendwise we can replicate right away."


It's this trailblazing technology that regularly brings larger schools to visit Harper. But Harper College President Kenneth Ender emphasizes that atomic force microscopes and robotic patients alone aren't enough to prepare students for 21st century jobs. "It is paramount that we not only acquire the latest technology, but also work to thoughtfully integrate it into all levels of our curriculum. How we use these resources is just as important as acquiring them."

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