What’s in a space? While learning can arguably take place anywhere, some disciplines require precise environments and tools to facilitate the kind of specialized knowledge that students will need to be successful in not only their fields of study, but also their professional careers. Perhaps this is the most true in pursuits in the physical sciences and allied health where understanding real, physical realities are the basis upon which knowledge and careers are built.
Nowhere is this more true than in a chemistry lab, where the units of matter—elements and molecules—combine and react in ways that students must understand, learn and then predict. For more than seventeen years, TMCC’s Chemistry Lab spaces have remained untouched, a reality that Chemistry Professor Katie Kolbet has advocated to change. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the William N. Pennington Foundation, these spaces have received much-needed renovations that not only improve the learning environment through more modern equipment and a better use of space, but that also increase student access.
For non-STEM majors, spaces like Chemistry Labs can offer insights into the impact science has across multiple domains through discussions that involve chemistry of the atmosphere (ozone depletion or climate change and greenhouse gases), for example. “I try to get students to see the big picture in terms of what’s going on in science, and how this impacts their lives,“ said Kolbet. “And that’s the fun part…getting students to see the decisions they are going to make–whether or not you agree with climate change, the chemistry is still there and that speaks for itself. Getting students to understand the hard data and use that to make an informed decision is what these classes can offer.”
And yet, it goes without saying: these renovations will have the most impact on students in allied health and STEM fields, including dietetic tech. "Students studying nutritional sciences and dietetics now have the opportunity to learn in a state-of-the-art classroom,” said Program Director and Professor of Dietetic Technology Heather Williams.
Other programs are also taking note of the updated spaces, such as Dental Hygiene. “With the prospective dental hygiene students required to take Chemistry 220 to apply to the program, we’re thrilled they are able to learn the principles and properties of Organic Chemistry with new state-of-the-art labs and equipment,” said Dental Hygiene Program Director and Professor Lori McDonald. “By updating the equipment, the labs are more efficient and user-friendly, allowing the students greater success with understanding challenging theories and concepts.”
The Root of STEM and Allied Health Fields
Beyond general science classes, however, the demand for hard sciences in STEM and allied health fields is great. Chemistry classes and labs are prerequisites for diverse majors that lead to careers in high-demand. These include physical sciences, biology, nursing, dental hygiene, dietetic technicians and radiologic technology. Additionally, chemistry courses are required for students looking for careers in medicine, biomedical imaging, engineering and fire sciences.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a 16% increase in the number of students taking chemistry courses at TMCC, with only 5% increase in the number of courses offered. These are classes that Kolbet said are taught at the same level of rigor that a student could find at a four-year institution. The only difference? TMCC’s classes provide a richer instructor-to-student ratio, a tradition that will continue thanks to the renovated spaces. “We don’t lower our standards for students to succeed. We teach the same rigor that you’d find at a four-year institution, but we also provide students with opportunities to get all the help they need. These renovations will give our instructors the resources and the workable spaces they need—that way, we can expand our offerings to meet student and community demand.”
Without additional lab spaces, the college was simply unable to accommodate additional sections of these courses, regardless of the demand. However, the renovations—which will be complete early in the Spring 2022 Semester—two new labs will accommodate an additional 240 chemistry students per academic year.
These are students in pursuit of degrees in high-demand careers, including those in allied health in fields such as nursing, medical imaging, dental hygiene and assisting, as well as several STEM fields like engineering, computer science, environmental science and physics, to name a few. These are the careers that require hands-on applications of advanced critical thinking, problem-solving and specialized knowledge of the fundamental truths around which the world literally functions.
“The renovation of our chemistry labs has opened opportunities for more students to access the high-quality instruction we’ve always offered at TMCC, but in modernized spaces that address student needs through increased safety and more functional layouts. This wouldn’t have been made possible without our faculty who advocated for this project for many years, and the generosity of the Pennington Foundation who made these renovations possible,” said Dean Anne Flesher.
Filling a Real Need
The renovations to TMCC’s chemistry labs and the increased access to students is filling a real need in our community and beyond. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, health care workers are at the forefront of not only providing care for COVID-19 patients, but also taking the lead in emergency response teams, hospital and field operations, and human resource management—all actions which are fueled by the necessity of providing medical care to those in need of it. In order to provide that kind of care, professionals need high-quality training and practice, which can only be accomplished in safe and accommodating lab facilities that enable instruction, experimentation and practice to occur.
Currently, an estimated 152,395 Nevadans (11.3% of our state’s workforce) are employed in health care, and twenty of the one hundred fastest-growing occupations in Nevada are in the allied health fields. Beyond that, learning spaces that support chemistry and biology lab environments are applicable across several rapidly growing careers that support vital functions in our community.
Chemistry, for one, permeates many aspects of our daily lives. Industry applies the specialized knowledge of chemistry in what we eat, wear, to create modes of viable transportation as well as the technology to support an increasingly automated and remotely located workforce. Chemistry is at the heart of how we treat illnesses while finding ways to create sustainable energy, provide safe drinking water, and to overall promote human and environmental health.
Biology, too, resides at the core of a student’s education for those in allied health or STEM fields, providing entry into the study of living organisms from the cellular to the holistic level. Laboratory spaces enable hands-on learning—tangible lessons—that students can carry with them beyond the classroom into their careers and lives.
“The majority of students who will be impacted by these renovations are our future healthcare workers, environmental scientists, engineers and other innovators. Through their generous gift, the William N. Pennington Foundation is transforming the lives of not only our students, but of our community that directly benefits from the expertise and hands-on work that these students will do when they become professionals in their respective fields. This is precisely the kind of gift our community needs as we move into a post-COVID-19 world,” said Foundation Executive Director Gretchen Sawyer.
For more information about studying Chemistry at TMCC, contact the Physical Sciences department at 775-673-7183.