Students use new NCI lab

January 19, 2012

By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

The New College Institute opened a state-of-the-art science lab last week on Fayette Street.

Beginning this semester, students in the Piedmont Governor’s School for Mathematics, Science and Technology are using the lab at 31 Fayette St., which can hold 24 students at a time.

In years past, area residents had to go elsewhere to access university-level resources, but the new lab allows students who stay in Martinsville to experience “world-class facilities,” said Leanna Blevins, associate director and chief academic officer at NCI.

Before moving into the new lab, governor’s school students used a “makeshift lab” on the fifth floor of Jefferson Plaza for three years. Experiments were done on regular tables, and not every student had access to his or her own sink, said Brian Pace, the governor’s school’s director.

The new lab has marble lab tables instead of regular classroom tables, and each student has access to a sink at his or her station, Pace said.

The goal of the governor’s school, which enrolls students from Martinsville and Henry County high schools in high-level courses, is to “transition them from high school to college,” Pace said. Now, the students not only are getting to do hands-on experiments, they also are getting a “campus feel” by walking from the classrooms at the Jefferson Plaza to the lab on Fayette Street, Pace said.

The lab contains several advanced technological features, such as a demonstration table with a video camera above to allow any location that receives video conferences to view a lab demonstration by an instructor. Other pieces of scientific equipment include spectrophotometers, which measure the concentration of a solution; centrifuges, which spin to cause more dense substances to separate; lab ovens; and incubators.

There also is a “wet lab,” which has access to both water and gas, according to Shawn Hickman, science instructor at the governor’s school.

The lab renovation was funded by the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, and the governor’s school provided some of the displays. The cost of the project was $336,725, according to Blevins.

The renovations began in August and were overseen by Dr. Mervyn King, who owns the building. NCI rents the building for $36,000 per year, Blevins said.

Students at the Piedmont Governor’s School site in Danville use an advanced lab at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in that city. Now, both sets of governor’s school students have access to state-of-the-art labs, Pace said.

“I love the new lab,” said Haley Carter, a junior at Bassett High School and governor’s school student. “It’s a lot more helpful because there is more space.”

Tate Jones, a junior at Magna Vista High School and governor’s school student, said the lab feels like a working environment because it is more like an actual scientific lab with everything in its own place.

On Tuesday, governor’s school students were working on a calorimetry lab in which they measured the transfer of heat. The students created a calorimeter by placing two Styrofoam coffee cups inside each other, one filled with cold water and the other filled with heated water.

The students’ goal was to figure out how much heat was lost to the environment, which would show how efficient their calorimeters were.

As NCI increases its programs involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and health care, it will use the lab for demonstrations and labs via video conference with partnering university campuses, Blevins said, adding that NCI hopes to provide those demonstrations to the campuses in the fall.

Currently, the only STEM program that NCI offers is a master’s degree in math education through Radford University. This fall, NCI will offer a bachelor’s degree in information systems through Virginia Commonwealth University, according to Blevins.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said in his recent State of the Commonwealth address that there should be more of a focus on STEM and health care curriculum in Virginia, and that 100,000 more people should earn college degrees over the next several years, she said.

As a result, NCI is looking at adding biology and chemistry programs as well as several health care options, Blevins said.


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