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At two years old, Sitter Family Hall has transformed the sciences at FLC

At two years old, Sitter Family Hall has transformed the sciences at FLC

It’s been two years since Sitter Family Hall first opened its doors – and its research laboratories, smart classrooms, study nooks, computer labs, observatory, geologic models, and more – to students and faculty. And since the Spring 2017 semester, the new facility has transformed and evolved the way physics, engineering, and geology are studied and taught at FLC. 

Sitter Family Hall is home to the Geology, Physics, Engineering, and Computer Engineering programs, and was designed to meet the particular needs of each academic discipline. The facility also completed FLC’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) complex, which includes Chemistry Hall, constructed in 2001, and Biology Hall, opened in 2010. 

Amenities include smart classrooms, tutoring and study spaces, state-of-the-science laboratories, electronics equipment, field tools, specimen displays, astronomical and optical technologies, and specialized testing and research facilities. A rooftop research observatory also supports physics and astronomy classes. And woven throughout the structure are dazzling integrated displays, exhibitions, and design features that are both beautiful and educational. This melding of art and science reflects both FLC’s liberal arts roots and the missions of the resident Geosciences and Physics & Engineering departments. 

The new building was more than a decade in the making, involving the collaboration of faculty, administration, and state representatives, along with the support of friends, alumni, and community and corporate donors. In fact, its name honors one of Fort Lewis College’s most generous benefactors: The Sitter family, whose 2010 contribution of $2 million in real estate remains the single largest gift in FLC's history. 

It was worth the wait: The building’s residents today sing the praises of what Sitter Family Hall provides the College’s undergraduate researchers and scientists-in-training. 

In the Physics & Engineering Department, Assistant Professor Devin Leahy is excited by the opportunities provided by the building’s advanced facilities. “Our students now have an extraordinarily unique opportunity to actually get their hands on the equipment they will use in their careers. Until Sitter Family Hall, we often could only describe and show photos of equipment and experiments. Now the students get to employ this equipment and conduct the experiments themselves.”

Elaborating on his own personal favorite equipment found in Sitter Family Hall, Assistant Professor Andy Young says, “As a structural engineer, the Structures & Materials and Mechanics & Materials laboratories have been particularly relevant for my students. In particular, we have two hydraulic load frames, one of which is capable of applying up to 55,000 pounds of force, that allow us to test the strength and stiffness of various metallic and composite specimens. Giving students the hands-on opportunity to experience the concepts and theories that we develop in the classroom is invaluable. And we get to break stuff, which is always fun!”

And technology is not all: Associate Professor Megan Paciaroni cites Sitter Family Hall’s collaborative work spaces as being of particular value. “These rooms allow me to sit down with my students and go over both individual and team progress as they push each of their devices to the shared screens,” she says. “Also, students have many spaces to study together. It is great to watch them working together to solve physics and engineering problems on the white boards in the study alcoves.”

For those in the Geosciences Department, Sitter Family Hall adds to what is already one of the finest natural earth-sciences laboratories in the world: The amazing geology of the nearby San Juan Mountains and Colorado Plateau. Professor of Geosciences David Gonzales explains: 

“The geologic setting in Durango is fantastic, but having space and tools to advance educational outcomes is a real plus. We all enjoy the great vistas of the surrounding region, but students and faculty now have dedicated places to conduct research projects, and new instruments to support this work,” he says. “Having the space to do focused research and learn about geology is wonderful. In particular, the Peter M. Mesard Mineralogy & Petrology lab is a great space to engage students with a variety of hands-on learning experiences.”

Professor of Geosciences Gary Gianniny has found that the building’s design aesthetics, in addition to the technical tools it holds, help motivate students and faculty. “The entire space is inspirational,” he says, “from the high-tech classrooms to the fascinating displays in the corridors. This energizes our entire crew! We use the Geologic Wall of Time display for many classes to complement the view of the geology of the Durango area we can take in from the rooftop terrace.” 

Gianniny also points out how the value of Sitter Family Hall has reached beyond campus, to the local community – which has also benefited students in unexpected ways. “We have been able to host dinner meetings for Four Corners Geological Society in Sitter Family Hall, which is fantastic for our students. These professionals act as mentors, and several have hired our graduates,” he notes. “The entire geological community of this region is now seeing this building as their new home. And every visiting geologist and community member is blown away by our outstanding facilities.”

Professor Kim Hannula, chair of the Geosciences Department, points out a particular piece of equipment that lives in Sitter Family Hall as having a major impact. “The scanning electron microscope is my favorite,” she says. “I used to travel all the way to Socorro, New Mexico, to use an instrument at the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology to do chemical analyses of minerals. That was more than eight hours of driving. But in this new building, in just one semester I was able to work with twenty students on FLC's new scanning electron microscope.”

Hannula, though, perhaps best sums up the impact of Sitter Family Hall on the entire Fort Lewis College science family, both present and past. “The alumni who graduated before the building opened are all really jealous,” she laughs.

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