Ignore the desks in the center of one of the brand-new nursing labs at Whatcom Community College, as well as the life-like training mannequins that can “breathe” and realistically respond to treatment, and visitors might be convinced they are standing in an actual hospital ward.
But even though the labs at WCC’s new Health Professions Education Center offer only simulated medical practice, their true-to-life nature is a core component of an expanding program, said Annette Flanders, who directs nursing studies at the college.
“It’s as close as we can get [to reality] with the mannequins, without real people in the bed,” Flanders said.
Students in the college’s state and nationally accredited health professions programs—who train to become registered nurses, medical assistants, physical therapist assistants and massage practitioners—began the fall quarter of their 2013-2014 academic year with more than 20,000 square feet of new classroom and lab space, designed to mimic the work environments most will eventually move into upon graduation.
The two-story center, which is located on the corner of Stuart Road and Cordata Parkway just north of the college’s main campus in Bellingham, also includes new offices for staff and faculty. A potential second phase could add an additional 13,000 square feet of space in the future.
College administrators say the new facility is a major step forward in WCC’s effort to supply Washington with new health care workers as the state faces a shortage of registered nurses, along with an aging population and new demands from the Affordable Care Act that are likely to contribute to a rising need for more skilled medical professionals.
WCC’s health professions programs have enjoyed success in recent years, with a graduation rate consistently above 95 percent. In 2012, all of the college’s graduates from its nursing, physical therapist assistant and massage practitioner programs passed their national licensure exams.
Program directors also note high demand from potential new students, and class space can be competitive. Combined, the programs enroll 300 students each year.
With the demands, the college faced an immediate need to combine the program’s various tracts and expand available classroom and lab space, said Cindy Burman-Woods, a workforce projects director at the college.
Prior to the center’s completion, WCC’s health professions instructors taught in labs scattered around the college, with faculty many times forced to cart equipment across campus to use in class, Burman-Woods said.
But with scarce state funding for new instructional space and high-tech educational tools, college administrators had to get creative.
The college’s separate nonprofit fundraising entity, the WCC Foundation, developed a partnership with a consortium of local developers, including Pete Dawson of Dawson Construction, Ken Hertz of Blossom Management Corp., and Faruk Taysi of Integrated Real Estate Management Inc. The agreement allowed developers to construct the building, then lease it to the Foundation, which in turn sub-leased it to the college itself.
Bob Tull, a member of the Foundation’s board of directors, said the speed of the process was an important element in developing the unique plan. The Foundation had also weighed the option of remodeling existing buildings available nearby, but the distinct requirements for medical-training facilities made that option difficult, he said.
Once the plan was in place, the entire project took about one year to complete.
“We had a critical awareness of the urgency of the need. Getting [the building] going quickly was a tremendous advantage,” Tull said.
The project’s successful completion has led college leaders to wonder if its development model might serve as a template for other building projects, particularly at a time when capital funding from the state Legislature is limited.
Kathi Hiyane-Brown, WCC’s president, said the college would look closely at private-partnership models, along with other funding options, when considering other new facilities. She described the completion of the Health Professions Education Center as “one of the highlights of my career.”
“There was a spirit behind the building, and a concept behind the building that talked about partnership and collaboration,” Hiyane-Brown said.
Several other major construction projects at the college are in various stages of planning and construction. They include an expansion of the college’s sports pavilion and student recreation center, a proposed “learning commons” facility in an empty plot of land on the east end of campus, and additional lab space for the college’s growing computer science program.
But while the speed and ease of working outside of traditional pathways to find funding is alluring, Hiyane-Brown said she hoped these new possibilities would not overshadow the important role state lawmakers play in supporting community and technical colleges.
Sue Cole, the current chair of WCC’s board of trustees, said she believed the new center represented a “forward thinking” approach to meeting current education and workplace training needs.
With community and technical colleges across the state strapped for cash, and emphasis on technical degrees and certificates growing, educators are seeing more possibilities in private-sector partnerships and other collaborations, Cole said.
“We’ve got to be creative in today’s environment,” she said.
Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.