Virginia Western Community College adds STEM building

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Virginia Western Community College opened its new STEM Building to students on Monday, August 26.

Pam Dudding
Contributing writer

Over the last two decades, the word “robotics” has become increasingly popular amongst high school students.

Last year, students at Craig County High School entered a robotics contest at Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) and took home first place, beating other high school students from area schools in addition to some college students.

Now, Virginia Western Community College is growing their department even more.

On Monday, August 26, the new STEM building was the talk of the campus. A special ribbon-cutting ceremony unveiled the state-of-the-art equipment with classrooms that both students and staff are immensely excited about.

The new $37 million, 72,000-square-foot STEM facility is the largest building on campus.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. “Although the acronym seems to imply that they stand alone, we as educators have been realizing for some time now that innovation really requires that we stand together,” Mechatronics Program Director David Berry explained. “Large schools have started to press this concept more in the last five to eight years with initiatives on collaboration. For this community, this STEM building really embodies that concept by pushing all of the STEM disciplines into the same volume of space. VWCC recognizes that students should see the division lines as blurred or nonexistent.”

Amy White, Dean of the STEM program, noted, “We have enjoyed a great partnership with Craig County, and I expect this building to only solidify and extend that relationship. What this building offers, to Craig, and all of our service areas, is the opportunity for students to experience technology typically found at four-year research institutions and large industry settings right here at home.”

She added that the students will be taught in small classes by faculty who are not only experts in their fields, but also committed to the growth and success of this region. “Many of our faculty attended community college themselves, so they are particularly cognizant of the career and academic paths our students travel,” White added.

The Mechatronics Lecture/Lab room allows students to get hands-on experience, paralleled with what they are being taught in the classroom.

“The new STEM building is exciting. I have been in education on both sides of the lectern for a long time. I think the students here are excited, but I would bet the faculty and staff are just as excited, if not more,” Berry said.

Dr. Robert Sandel, President of VWCC, shared with the public, “This amazing new facility is the result of many years of dedicated, hard work and forethought. We expect it to be a destination for students and industry partners who are interested in getting ahead in the region’s growing, STEM-focused economy. It is designed to adapt to our community’s needs, and we are so thrilled to show it off.”

Walking through the building, one can clearly see that the world of today’s and tomorrow’s technology is in that place.

The top five STEM programs of study at VWCC are mechatronics, engineering, biology, chemistry, biotechnology, physics and mathematics.

“The school anticipates using the sophisticated equipment and collaborative classrooms to fully engage students and to offer them opportunities to put into practice what they are learning in the classroom,” White said.

She added, “We can prepare students to enter the workforce directly, or to transfer to four-year institutions in STEM fields. This building was designed with input from the faculty, so both the classrooms and the laboratories will be fully utilized by all members of our STEM group. The building, along with the faculty and staff inside it, will not only educate, but also inspire and motivate the students of Craig County. Furthermore, we also will use this educational space to continue to engage with industry, so that we remain aware of the needs that our local industry has with respect to workforce.”

New cutting-edge equipment includes a collaborative robot, microscopes of contrast, multiphoton confocal and a scanning electron, four new spectrometers, process control units, a five axis CNC milling machine and a 24-foot water flume.

The addition of several new cutting-edge pieces of equipment will enhance the study of the students. Some of these are:

• Phase Contrast Fluorescence Microscope: Detects the presence of materials, such as protein, and identifies the location of materials in relation to other structures in a cell or tissue.

• Multiphoton Confocal Microscope: Provides high-resolution fluorescent imaging of cellular processes or other materials and generates 3D images of structures using laser scanning to improve resolution.

• Scanning Electron Microscope: Provides visibility at 250 to 500 times the magnification of most light microscopes, with focused electron beams to show detailed features of samples and composition and topography information. This microscope allows visualization at the nanometer level.

• Four new spectrometers: Used in analytical chemistry to determine information about an object or substance, these sophisticated instruments employ a variety of methods to identify and characterize materials and molecules.

• Collaborative Robot: Much like industrial robots that are common in manufacturing, the largest difference between the two is that collaborative robots are designed to safely work with human operators rather than in lieu of operators. The robot can easily be taught new processes and tasks as operators or operations change, without safety concerns.

White also noted, “In addition to the equipment, the STEM building is filled with student study rooms, where they may work on their coursework either collaboratively or in groups.  A STEM center on the third floor offers walk-in free tutoring for all STEM students. All these features, combined with the STEM faculty and staff, and the college resources, create an environment that promotes and fosters student success.”

What does this mean for Craig? Berry shared, “The Craig County population, young and old, now have access to the STEM building on campus and with that access, the residents will be exposed to newer equipment, instrumentation and learning environments.”

He added that he also believes the new facilities are “at the level of, or above, the four-year institutions in our region, but can be accessed at a small fraction of the cost. Four-year institutions don’t hesitate to raise costs for tuition, housing and parking every year. Parking at those institutions continues to go up every year. One parking permit alone down the road at VT is approximately equal to two credits at VWCC and rising.”

Berry had some great news to share: “The new STEM building houses state-of-the-art equipment that can be used by multiple disciplines and we didn’t raise the tuition. The entire community is really fortunate to have this affordable and accessible resource. Whether the individual wants to continue learning or find the most efficient way to transfer to a four-year school, VWCC will definitely take you there.”

“This is truly an exciting time for VWCC and the entire region,” said White.

To find out more about Virginia Western’s STEM programs, visit www.virginiawestern.edu/academics or call (855) 874-6690.

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