Breadth of vision

Friday, June 25, 2010

For the first time, undergraduate students interested in communication disorders get to see the specialized technique used to identify and treat hearing loss in the youngest of patients – a newborn baby.

Just down the hall, students pursuing speech pathology get a window into real-life experience as they tune into an actual patient visit from an adjoining private observation room.

Not far away, nursing students gather around a computerized mannequin in a simulated critical care hospital room. An instructor operating the mannequin from an adjoining room begins the lesson as she poses as the patient. The patient begins to cough before complaining of chest pains and has difficulty breathing. With each new symptom, the nursing students reference the monitors, assess his condition and begin to take the necessary care delivery steps they’ve talked about in class.

Recent renovations to Brown Hall, more than $13.5 million, have made these once infrequent or absent experiences every day learning opportunities for St. Cloud State University students. The renovations started last year bringing the nursing program back on campus after nearly a decade, expanding space for both general science education and communication sciences and disorders and gives continuing studies programs an academic space of their own.

“It’s going to enhance the learning of our students because we now have a physical space to support their training,” said Monica Devers, chair of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department at St. Cloud State.

The total overhaul completed in January moves the 78,000-square-foot building to the 21st century with not only standard code, accessibility and functional requirements, but also an assortment of interactive technology that enhances the learning environment.

“It is modern, updated and gives students motivation to learn,” said Elizabeth Dwyer, a junior nursing student from Montana.

Back on Campus
Nursing students once drove across town – 20 minutes each way – and often spent most of their days far from campus, nestled into leased space the University converted into a small lab.

“We felt so disconnected from campus,” Dwyer said. “We were rarely on campus so we lost touch with being a St. Cloud State University student. I’ve seen a lot of benefits of having the lab back on campus.”

Prior to January, nursing students would hustle from one end of campus to the other – sometimes even during one of their classes – to a classroom not being used by another academic program. Instructors would follow with their projectors and other class materials tucked around their arms. Props, now commonly used in Brown Hall, were seldom offered to provide a visual demonstration for students.

An increase in the number of hospital beds from 10 to 19 provides more opportunity for hands-on learning – an essential element of teaching the profession, said Brenda Lenz, associate Nursing professor and chair of the Nursing

“We’re bringing the hands-on learning and teaching directly to the student,” Lenz said. “We now have the ability to increase the amount of simulation that we are able to have
the students do.”

Dwyer often visualizes herself doing the simulated activities when she is caring for an actual patient during her clinical experience at a hospital. “By doing it, you know more of what to expect,” she said. “If you are exposed to things that are more real life, then you are going to be more prepared to handle them in real life.”

Expanding Clinical Opportunities
The space upgrade moves Communication Sciences and Disorders from the Education Building to four times the space in Brown Hall. The added space allows the program to expand to two dedicated labs, add two group therapy rooms and double the number of clinic rooms.

“We’ve been around for a long time, but I think we are one of the least known programs,” Devers said. “I think with this move to Brown Hall, some of that will change. “We now are a very visible face for the University with our interactions with the community,”

The additional rooms increase the clinic’s capacity, giving way to an increasing number of new learning opportunities for students. Once crammed in a closet-size room, the audiology program’s lab now has space to show students firsthand how to care for a lifespan of patients and gives them hands-on experiences like using a hearing aid testing box to determine the right setting for patients.

Each exam room in the Speech Language and Hearing Clinic also is equipped with recording devices that allow instructors to critique a consultation with the student who completed it or review the assessment and diagnosis with a group of students. The technology allows more students to learn from the nearly 100 patient visits to the clinic each week instead of only the one patient they are assigned to for the semester, said Judi Larsen, clinical services coordinator.

“Instead of reading about something in a book, they can see it being done or be a part of it as a graduate student,” said Rebecca Crowell, practicing Audiologist and professor of Audiology at St. Cloud State. “Our students choose between audiology and speech pathology. Now that I am able to make audiology come to life for them, they are able to make a better decision which path they want to take.”

The new space also enhances the experience for the parents and caregivers of those patients. Instead of standing in a hallway between classrooms while other students passed by or discussed the assessment, the caregivers observe from private suites while students receive a play-by-play from their instructor in an observation space that spans all the rooms.

Growing Demand
The renovations come at a time when demand for these programs and professions rise.

Nursing is among the nation’s high growth occupations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the employment of registered nurses to increase 22 percent from 2008 to 2018 - much faster than other occupations.

New space in Brown Hall will allow the nursing program to expand its ability to help meet the national need as it goes from admitting 40 students a year to 40 students a semester, Lenz said. That is expected to propel the program to 200 undergraduate students by the end of 2010.

That capacity proves particularly beneficial now as Mayo Clinic in Rochester and other health-care providers require nurses to have a bachelor’s degree and more licensed practical nurses (LPN) return to school for a bachelor’s degree. The space also provides opportunities to meet a growing demand for advanced nursing training and potential of a future graduate program, Lenz said.

The nationally accredited master’s program in speech pathology also faces a growing industry need. The program recently posted 100 percent placement of its students and continues to see a growing interest in employment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for speech pathologists to grow by nearly 20 percent from 2008 to 2018.

“We are two of the fastest growing professions in the nation right now,” Devers said.

More than 130 students applied for the speech pathology graduate program this year, but space constraints and a requirement of every student to receive 400 hours of clinical experience typically limits admittance to 15 to 20 students a year.

Devers expects the space to increase interest in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. She already has seen the impression the space has on prospective students during tours.

“Every student who came to visit our campus this year left incredibly impressed with the lab, equipment and the work being done here,” Devers said. “I am willing to bet that we are going to see more yeses to the program than we used to.”

- Dawn Zimmerman

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