Most Timely Development Going Into New Pandemic Year Is Tech’s Continued Expansion Of An Outstanding Nursing Program.

Change is underway to keep Montana Tech economically prosperous and its students ahead of the curve. Perhaps the Most Timely Development Going Into The New Pandemic Year Is Tech’s Continued Expansion Of An Outstanding Nursing Program, And The State-Of-The-Art Nursing Simulation Center To Come. Beginning in 2020, Tech started adding 10 students per semester to the nursing program. The incremental additions will eventually increase the program size by 50% to 150 students by fall 2022.

Timing is everything. The pandemic has highlighted the need for nurses globally, and Montana Tech’s nurses are as prepared as about any on the globe when they leave the program bound for careers in care. Karen VanDaveer, the interim Dean of College of Letters, Sciences and Professional Studies, said 100% of nursing graduates are placed in jobs, and 80% have jobs before they graduate. About 97.5% pass their state licensure exam. Getting into Tech’s nursing program has long been extraordinarily competitive. Students applying are required to complete three semesters of prerequisites. Before the expansion, 50 students competed for 20 spots per semester, the bulk of these showing strong GPAs with just shreds of difference between them, nursing student Connor Stanghill said.

The GPAs are as high as ever. Now there are 30 spots for the qualified to fight over each semester. “I actually applied three times before I got in, and I had an amazing GPA,” said Stanghill, who entered the program this semester. “It’s heartbreaking to see all the other applicants that are turned away, because every applicant that’s in there is extremely qualified.” Jordan Peterson also entered the expanded program, and her younger sister, previously denied, seized a spot the first semester of expansion.

“Everybody’s so smart, and so driven, and so competitive when they’re wanting to go into nursing at Tech, because that’s just how Tech is — it’s a competitive nursing school, and you get the best education in the state,” Peterson said. Nursing students at Tech will soon benefit from a state-of-the-art Nursing Simulation Center. Interim Director of Nursing Janet Coe said the bid goes out for construction of the $1.7 million project in February. Construction is targeted to begin in May and finish in October, and the building will be part of the Science and Engineering Building, right in the heart of the North campus.

Students will be honing their field skills at the new center spring semester of 2022. The project is funded completely by private donors. Tech acquired its first simulation manikin seven years ago. Since then they’ve added all kinds of sims — Sim Mom, Sim Baby, you name it. The extraordinarily life-like robotic manikins are controlled by computer to teach students to react to real-life patient care scenarios — from changing catheters to removing babies caught sideways in the womb. These simulated scenarios offer the next best thing to the clinical sessions Tech nursing students undertake at St. James when they work with human patients.

Coe, VanDaveer, and the students interviewed for this story all said working with sims is invaluable to nursing education. “They walk away with confidence,” Coe said. “They’re not paralyzed with fear.” “When you leave as a new graduate, you have to be able to respond to the patient,” Coe said. Right now, students work with sims in various classrooms in Tech’s Health Sciences Building. The new simulation center will improve the experience dramatically, with four dedicated simulation areas set up like hospital rooms, and four rooms for students to watch their peers in action by video. The design was painstakingly engineered by Tech staff and Schutz Foss Architects out of Billings.

Prospective students and others will be able to watch simulations in progress from windows to the outside. The new simulation center will make the experience more real, isolating students with their sim patients in a realistic setting to prepare them for the day real lives are on the line. The pandemic has changed the way the world sees health care, and created an urgent demand for nurses worldwide. “During COVID we’ve been seeing people that haven’t been getting the treatment that they deserve while in the hospital, because hospitals are so overwhelmed,” Stanghill said. “It’s really shown that we don’t have enough medical staff to achieve that goal of giving every patient great care.”

Peterson has a child with serious health issues, so health care couldn’t be more personal. The pandemic has only increased the size of the battlefield. “It makes me want to be on that frontline helping people — that’s why I chose to go into nursing. I want to give back to others what I have gotten through health care throughout my life,” Peterson said. Tech has modified its health care programs in step with the increased need. Telehealth — remote patient care by phone or video — has become essential during the pandemic, and a telehealth room is being added to the new sim center.

Coe and VanDaveer said that more emphasis is being put on the public health aspect of education at Tech, and the engineering and health departments of the university have been collaborating on projects — an improved system for fitting N-95 masks that results in less waste, for example. They also believe students from outside the nursing program stand to make use of the new sim center. Dr. Les Cook, Tech’s chancellor, said the university tweaked the name of a program — Applied Health and Safety Science became Exercise and Health Science — resulting in greatly increased interest.

It’s part of the school’s greater effort to expand health care study options and their appeal. Because the nursing program is so competitive, students who don’t get in often look for other avenues to work in health care. Meanwhile the placement rate for Tech students seeking to go to medical schools is extremely high, Cook said. “With the pandemic, the value of really good quality health care has never been more important than it is today,” Cook said.

Beyond highlighting the university’s health care programs, the pandemic has brought out other important changes at Tech. Or rather, Tech’s administrators, staff and student body have made lemonade out of a real lemon of a year. After all, innovation is a bedrock principal at the university. Cook said improving online education was a priority already, but the pandemic lit a fire under the effort. “It created a sense of urgency — that we can’t sit around and debate and talk about it and plan for the future — we’ve got to do it,” he said.

Widespread classroom updates and advances in online programming resulted in a short time, Cook said, and now the school is testing a new app that puts everything Tech — from the lunch menu to graduation applications — on a smart phone with Tech’s mascot, Charlie Oredigger, on screen and ready to assist. Additionally, Cook said, the pandemic has brought attention and value to education in trades.

On the Highlands College campus, the launch of a new Commercial Drivers Program is just an instructor away, and two new instructors were hired for Highlands’ lineman program. After an additional apprenticeship, a two-year lineman program sets up students to make over $110,000 per year, Cook said. Along with an increased focus on trades, the pandemic illuminated the need to improve its outdoor spaces, Cook said, and the school is underway on projects to do so. The ongoing pandemic is a monumental tragedy, but it has paved the way to fast progress at Tech.

“I look at COVID as a huge blessing in disguise in some ways. The CARES money has helped us out immensely. We’ve been able to do things that we wouldn’t have had resources to do for years,” Cook said. The school has thus far received $7.2 million in federal CARES Act funding over the pandemic, much of which has been used to prepare the university for the future. Another big change Cook is hoping for is rooted in the university’s distant past, however. The university’s heating plant was put in a year after the school opened its doors in 1900. It hasn’t been replaced since.

Now the $6 million replacement project is at the top of the state’s Montana University System Long-Range Building Project list, and Cook is hopeful it will be approved in a matter of weeks. “That tells you a lot right there,” Cook said. “You’re in bad shape to get to number one.” Fortunately, it’s been a mild winter. A hundred other changes are underway at Tech, including increased focus on restoration, as demonstrated by the addition of the Restoration Ecology Ph.D. program this past spring.

As of fall 2020, Tech’s North campus had an 81% retention rate, the highest of any Montana University System school, and Highlands College had a retention rate of 65%, the highest of any two-year campus in Montana. Enrollment decreased only slightly from 2,421 to 2,329 between fall 2019 to fall 2020. All indication is that the Orediggers are in for an exciting 2021.

This news was originally published at MT Standard.