Two students, a women and man, looking at their laptop computers.
Diamond Taylor DVMx'19 and Austin Pritchard DVMx'19 confer with each other as they analyze a hypothetical patient case during an Active Integrated Learning course in the new Renk Learning Center. (Photo: Nik Hawkins)

Floor-to-ceiling windows have replaced the bank of non-functional solar panels that once stretched across the school’s south facade, shedding welcome, natural light on the educational experience at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) — and making room for a whole lot more.

In spring 2017, the much-anticipated Renk Learning Center opened its doors to a new stage in teaching and learning at the SVM. This transformation of underutilized space into a student-focused hub came about thanks to a major gift from two UW alumni — the late Walter and Martha Renk — as well as generous donations from SVM alumni and friends and a significant contribution from the UW–Madison campus.

Prior to breaking ground on the project, the Veterinary Medicine Building had remained largely unchanged since its construction more than 30 years ago, despite dramatic shifts in the classroom that altered how faculty deliver course materials and how students process information.

While SVM instructors embraced these changes by adopting active learning exercises, case-based activities, and flipped classrooms, and by incorporating hands-on clinical experiences into earlier stages of the curriculum, only so much could be achieved within the bounds of decades-old construction. To give innovation more room to grow, demolition and construction of the new student space kicked off in May 2016.

“This new center will help us continue to progress in how we teach and serve our future veterinarians,” says Lynn Maki, associate dean for student academic affairs. “As we learn more about what’s best for veterinary medical students from a teaching and learning perspective and in terms of how we deliver additional academic and support services, we need to rethink, adapt, and expand our methods.”

The extensive remodeling project repurposed storage rooms and renovated limited study areas to clear the way for much-needed improvements. This includes an active learning area for team-based problem-solving and case studies, an expanded Clinical Skills Training Center for practicing core veterinary medical skills, an additional counseling office and meditation room for wellness and mental health support, dedicated study and testing spaces, and much more.

Clinical instructor Linda Sullivan DVM’87 shares a laugh with Geoff Gieni DVMx19, Jake Nilles DVMx’19, and Cal Melberg DVMx’19 during a class held in the Active Learning Room. (Photo: Nik Hawkins)

Hands-on Learning

A new active learning room featuring several small group workspaces will better facilitate team-based problem-solving courses within the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) curriculum, such as clinical pathology and Active Integrated Learning (AIL).

Kristen Friedrichs DVM’91, clinical associate professor of pathobiological sciences and AIL course co-coordinator, has already seen an improvement in the delivery of her class, which teaches second-year students how to “think and communicate like a clinician.” Working in small groups, students tackle actual and adapted cases, uncovering diagnoses, proposing treatment plans, and building essential skills for interacting with clients and veterinary medical professionals.

“This is not a lecture course. This is a doing course,” Friedrichs says. “We give students some basic principles and a framework, and then we say, ‘go at it.’” The structure of the new active learning space is much more conducive to collaboration. Previously, large groups crowded around limited lab benches and students primarily worked from individual computers because shared screens were small and far away from their work areas. However, the new space features dedicated workstations, each equipped with a large central monitor where both presentations and case data can be displayed, making it much easier to communicate among team members and consult with instructors.

“We were the guinea pigs to test the room during our active integrated learning and clinical pathology courses. It gave us a much more comfortable space to work through cases, in groups of five or six students, evaluating case data and generating our diagnostic and treatment plans,” says Carl Magnusson DVMx’19. “The new room was beneficial for those courses and will also be a great space for group studying.”

Kore Chan DVMx’20 and a feline companion offer clinical skills tips for Candace Cottingham DVMx’19. (Photo: Nik Hawkins)

Enhanced Skills

The new Clinical Skills Training Center (CSTC) — more than four times the size of the previous space — will enable students to practice core technical veterinary medical skills using models and other learning tools before performing procedures on live patients in the teaching hospital and other clinical settings.

The CSTC is currently used to enhance clinical skills development for first- through third-year DVM students and for small group teaching of fourth-year students during their clinical rotations. It also offers students increased access to trainers, large and small animal models, and equipment and the opportunity for more independent practice and refinement of skills outside of normally scheduled classes.

“The new center is open and available to students 24/7,” says SVM Instructional Specialist Kristen Cooley, who oversees the CSTC. “The space is a place to practice things without the fear of hurting an animal or looking silly doing something for the first time. It is safe and low-stress and a 100% judgement-free zone.”

Inside the expanded CSTC, which now allows instructors to work with groups of up to 45 people, students can practice a variety of skills — ranging from basic to advanced. The scope of activities includes instruction on everything from bandaging a canine or equine leg to performing CPR to identifying surgical instruments and performing surgical techniques.

The school is working with faculty to identify clinical competencies within their existing courses and find ways to augment their curriculum with hands-on skills training through the CSTC, with a future goal of launching an individual course that teaches clinically related concepts in both large and small animal medicine.

“Thus far, the development of clinical skills training has been a very organic process whereby faculty have developed skills sessions that are important to their particular specialty and either teach the labs themselves or in collaboration with veterinary technicians from the teaching hospital,” says Robb Hardie, associate dean for professional programs and clinical professor of small animal surgery. “We hope that this process continues to grow as more faculty become aware of the opportunity.”

Associate counselor Christina Frank has a one-on-one conversation with a student in the new, more accessible Personal Wellness and Support Services office in the Renk Learning Center. (Photo: Nik Hawkins)

Personal Space

The Power of Donors
The new student space is called the Renk Learning Center in recognition of two UW alumni, the late Walter and Martha Renk, who made the largest gift for the project. In addition to the couple’s donation, nearly 100 SVM alumni and friends contributed to the remodeling project, thanks in part to a matching gift from an anonymous donor through the 512 Wingra Street Fund. Other portions of the learning center bear the names of key donors, including the meditation room (Gary and Cammy Seamans), the testing room (Class of 1987 alumnus Terry Clark DVM’87 and his wife, Irene), the reading room (Class of 1988 alumnus Mark Tetrick DVM’88 and his wife, Catherine), and the kitchenette (Nestlé Purina PetCare Company).

Additional naming opportunities are still available. For more information, contact Director of Development Heidi Kramer. Student wellness and mental health support were key considerations in completing the new space. The Renk Learning Center features several areas where students can join classmates for group activities or take a moment for personal reflection.

A new study area offers students an additional space to gather in between classes, in the evenings, and on weekends to work on their own or in small groups. Reflecting the SVM’s commitment to inclusivity, a new testing room will also enhance the school’s ability to accommodate students with special exam location and scheduling requests.

Counselors from the school’s Personal and Wellness Support Services (PAWSS) office are also more accessible to students thanks to a dedicated second floor counseling room. In addition to offering one-on-one sessions, counselors use this space to meet with the SVM’s wellness committee and faculty and staff who teach in the communication curriculum.

PAWSS counselors further help students deal with the high pressure environment of veterinary medical school by hosting resiliency training workshops where students discuss their feelings and stressors in a group setting, and they offered a mindfulness selective course in May 2017.

“There is a growing body of research on mindfulness indicating that it decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety,” says Christina Frank, associate counselor with the PAWSS office. “Students benefit from knowing that mental health services are available to them if they’re needed. My hope is that, if we can help some students, it will have a positive ripple effect on others.”

Students can also take a quiet break away from studying and re-center themselves through small group or independent exercises in a new meditation room.

“Besides the rigor of the curriculum and normal, everyday stresses, veterinary medical students have so many other pressures,” says Shannon Gildersleeve DVMx’18, SVM student wellness committee chair. “They face ethical, moral, and emotional dilemmas daily. Dealing with that without preparation can be completely overwhelming.

“Having a space dedicated to improving mental health in the new facility shows the dedication of the administration to helping students and faculty improve their own mental wellbeing.”

Ashley Voss  (with contributions from Nik Hawkins)

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