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Where technology and wellness combine (New SON Building)

New School of Nursing Building on a sunny spring day

The sun-filled four-story atrium in Vanderbilt University School of Nursing’s new expansion is a hub of connectivity. A professor and student sit on the bench under the monumental staircase consulting a laptop screen. Across the gray tile floor, a dozen students work on laptops, tablets and smartphones at tall tables. In the lobby’s raised landing area, students gather on upholstered semicircular benches to eat and catch up with classmates they haven’t seen since their last on-campus intensive session.

by Nancy Wise

Photography by Dina Bahan, Steve Hall (Hall+Merrick Photographers), Joe Howell, Anne Rayner, John Russell and Susan Urmy

“This is what we envisioned. This is what we worked for,” said Dean Linda D. Norman, DSN, FAAN, the Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing.

“This is a building that combines technical advancements with wellness solutions and opportunities for human interaction.”

The technology includes conference/ classrooms with advanced collaborative capabilities, an interactive classroom for flipped learning, a virtual classroom that can be used for educational production from creating course lessons to transmitting dissertation conferences across the globe, and the jewel in the building’s crown: a state-of-the-art simulation and skills lab that fills its third floor.

The new structure was also designed and built (and is now operated) to positively impact the well-being of its occupants. Air quality, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mental well-being were factored into the building’s creation.

“This expansion — lobby area, atrium, five-story building and welcoming green spaces — represents a commitment to interaction, collaboration and unification,” Norman said. “The building was designed with built-in places for students to engage with each other, faculty and students from elsewhere on campus.”

The School of Nursing opened its new $23.6 million expansion Jan. 22 after an intense 20-month construction period. The 29,947-square-foot structure is located between Mary Ragland Godchaux Hall, the Nursing Annex and Patricia Champion Frist Hall. Construction manager was D.F. Chase; Hastings Architecture was the architect.

A few weeks after completion, the building was in full use and Norman said she was delighted to see that its communal spaces are being used for connection.

United student services

The completion of the building saw the return to campus of the school’s Clinical Placement office and its ­Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner faculty and staff.

Lack of space had caused them to be housed on 18th Avenue, away from classrooms and colleagues.

“We’re thrilled to be in the new building,” said Elizabeth Rapisarda, MBA’87, BA’80, senior director of Clinical Placement. “We find it more efficient to coordinate with faculty and other departments, and it’s certainly more convenient for students, as we help them set up their clinical placements or work with them when an issue comes up. We’re no longer blocks away, which definitely facilitates scheduled, as well as drop-in, conversations.”

Clinical Placement offices are on the building’s second floor near the offices of the senior associate dean of Academics and assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion. Other student-centered offices are housed on the building’s first floor. Admissions, financial aid, registrar and student affairs offices are clustered together and accessible to students; the school’s alumni director has an office nearby.

Experiential and immersive

Connection was also a requirement for the building’s technology. All of the building’s conference/classrooms are equipped with technology that can connect occupants in the room to those at other locations. “The Wachtmeister Interactive Classroom and the Virtual Classroom have collaboration and learning as their main purposes,” Norman said. “The Simulation and Skills Lab was built with spacious bays so students can learn in groups. Each bay is equipped with audio and video so that simulations can be shared live or recorded to be reviewed by the group.”

A technically advanced skills and simulation lab was at the top of Norman’s must-have list when planning for the expansion. Students and faculty were then using an L-shaped retrofitted space in the nearly 100-year-old Godchaux Hall. It had a mix of high-tech and older simulation equipment and mannequins, but for advanced simulations, classes used the more spacious CELA center operated by the School of Medicine.

The new Simulation and Skills Lab is nearly three times as large as the old space and includes 13 patient care bays with observation control rooms fitted with one-way glass, two debriefing conference rooms and simulation preparation areas. Each bay has a hospital bed, functioning headwall, vitals’ monitor, simulated gas outlets and computer. The lab has a dedicated obstetrics bay, but it, and all the other areas, can be transformed for emergency, pediatric, bedside, neonatal or practitioner office simulations. The lab is also home to several new high-fidelity nursing simulation mannequins designed to provide realistic interactions and challenges for students.

The authenticity of the technology, settings and simulations give students clinical decision-making experience and help them develop complex skills in a variety of health care scenarios ranging from cleaning and stitching a laceration to intubating a patient.

The school also expanded its simulation staff with the addition of Jo Ellen Holt, DNP, CEN, CCNS, assistant professor and Skills and Simulation Lab director. Holt and a team of four full-time nurses create and coordinate simulations for the school’s nearly 400 PreSpecialty students, as well as many of the school’s advanced nursing specialties.

Technologically advanced classrooms

The building’s fourth floor houses two technologically advanced rooms: the Virtual Classroom and the Wachtmeister Interactive Classroom.

The Wachtmeister Interactive Classroom supports flipped classroom teaching, an approach to education where students study lecture material on their own time and use class time for interactive learning. To make that possible, the Wachtmeister is equipped with five interactive 4K displays, a panoramic camera and touch panels. The room can be arranged into a variety of groups or configurations. The instructor can project content on all five screens or each screen can be controlled by students and display individual content. Students can wirelessly present material from their laptops, tablets or smartphones.

“Using technology enables our students to become active learners, engaged in the material,” said Betsy Weiner, PhD, FACMI, FAAN, senior associate dean for Informatics and Centennial Independence Foundation Professor of Nursing. “It allows faculty to interact with the students and their content in a more dynamic manner than traditional lectures. It’s transformative.”

Studies have found that students perform significantly better in active learning environments and have increased involvement in class, Weiner said. The classroom is the first on Vanderbilt’s campus, and Weiner anticipates that it will play a role in transinstitutional opportunities as faculty conceptualize innovative lessons and projects.

Next door to the Wachtmeister is the Virtual Classroom. With blackout shades down and furnishings at a minimum, the room resembles a production studio — and that’s exactly how it functions. It provides faculty a high-quality setting in which to produce classes for online and distance learning. It will also support streaming doctoral defenses to other locations.

The room’s greatest asset is its flexibility. It’s equipped with three video cameras, green screen, sound muffling and a lighting grid. With shades up and chairs positioned in front of the windows, it can be a setting for a panel discussion or, as it was used recently, provide an opportunity for Nursing Informatics faculty to record a series of videos for prospective students.

Uniformly connected

The building’s seven conference rooms serve multiple needs. They can be used for classes, meetings, seminars and collaborative conferences.

On the building’s top floor, the Christy-Houston Foundation Conference Room is in demand for classes and meetings, as it gives a sweeping view of 21st Avenue and Nashville’s eastern skyline. The room, along with the Holeman Reynolds Conference Room on the second floor, the Agnes F. Godchaux Conference Room on the third floor and all collaborative spaces in the building, operate with the same advanced technology. This synchronicity means that anyone in the school can operate the smartboards and interactive displays in any room. It also means that any room can be used for classes, seminars or meetings, depending upon availability. The rooms are all furnished with equipment that allows streaming from them to other similarly outfitted rooms within the school.

Designed for well-being

The first thing visitors to the School of Nursing building notice is the light-filled atrium and the building’s multiplicity of windows and glass. The two are key to one of the building’s wellness features: Its lighting supports human circadian rhythms with optimum light intensity for at least four hours a day every day of the year. The atrium is filled with natural light from a skylight and glass wall. Offices and classrooms are designed with a mixture of natural light and task lighting.

Lighting that supports occupant health is one component in the WELL Building Standard, a performance-based system of measuring, certifying and monitoring features that affect human health and well-being in the built environment. The building was planned and built to meet the program’s rigorous standards; the university will apply for WELL Silver certification later this year. The building was also constructed to meet LEED Gold certification for sustainability.

“It makes synergistic sense that our expansion is Vanderbilt’s first building constructed to WELL standards,” Norman said. “Nursing takes a holistic view of health and seeks to care for the entire person. The building was designed to meet the needs of our students, faculty and staff in everything from air quality to comfort and natural light.”

WELL standards were considered for every aspect of the building. For example, all the materials used for carpets, flooring and walls have low or no VOC (volatile organic compounds) content, which means that they don’t release harmful materials into the air. To optimize air quality, ductwork was sealed in plastic during construction to avoid drawing contaminants from construction into the HVAC system.

Other wellness components include acoustical treatments to reduce mechanical equipment noise, an open staircase to encourage low-impact stair climbing and the incorporation of nature through colors, textures and materials.

In the atrium and lobby, a dark brown wood wall draws the eye. “The wood comes from the basswood tree that had been on the building site,” Norman said. “Incorporating the reclaimed wood was something we specifically requested be part of the expansion.” The receptionist’s desk, a display cabinet and planters are also made from the tree’s wood.

Green spaces

Outside, the school’s entrance has been reconfigured. Gone is the small parking lot hidden behind unruly magnolia trees. In its place is a spacious circular turnaround, landscaped drought-resistant grasses and inviting outdoor green space. Benches, tables and chairs invite students, faculty and staff outside for lunch, conversation or squirrel watching. The magnolias and hollies have been trimmed for appearance and safety.

The wider driveway and entrance allow the School of Nursing to be visible from 21st Avenue.

A second outdoor green space is reachable from the building’s fifth floor. The Sandra Coats Chase Terrace includes tables, chairs and a carpet of sun-loving plants. Accessible by school ID card, the terrace provides a quiet place to have lunch, study, recharge or meet.

Norman frequently walks around the building during lunchtime. She talks with students eating in the lobby or working on their laptops in the atrium. She may pop by the rooftop terrace or visit the faculty/staff breakroom. She checks in with faculty and staff, and takes the pulse of the community.

“This is a place where students can learn, be challenged and grow as health care professionals,” she said. “It’s technologically advanced, and that technology has multiple purposes. It not only prepares students to be successful in their careers but it will inspire new methods of learning and advance interactive collaborations by faculty and staff.”

“This new building is a place where the well-being of the whole student is supported and where faculty, staff and students can be inspired by their surroundings,” Norman said.

“People really love being in this space. It’s physically beautiful, but it’s more than that. People — students, faculty, staff, visitors, even — sense the purpose.”

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