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For years, there has been a room on the third floor of the Henry B. Peters Building that reminded Dean Kelly Nichols of “the lost luggage section at the airport.” Large rolling bags were scattered across the floor, creating an obstacle course that students had to traverse in order to retrieve their optometry equipment.

optometry classroomThe culprit was a lack of storage space in the build­ing, which had not changed much since opening in 1974. Students had access to some small metal lockers that looked like something you would find in a middle school, not a major university. The lockers were large enough to hold a few books and a back­pack, but that was about it. So the bulky equipment was unceremoniously piled up in a nearby room.

“Students had to remember that their bag was in the far left corner, second row,” Nichols says with a chuckle. “That was just one of the things that needed to be upgraded in the building.”

Many of those upgrades are now complete, following extensive renovations to the second and third floors of the five-story structure. Along with the much-needed larger student lockers, there is now a new student lounge; new and expanded examination rooms, classrooms and restrooms; and improved technology throughout the building.

In addition, the interior has been given an overall facelift. Gone are the 1970s-style carpet and panel­ing, replaced with sleek-looking décor that gives the building more of a 21st-century feel.

renovated exam room“You want to ensure that your physical space is the best it can be,” Nichols says. “Being in a nice, modern, clean space is a morale builder for both students and faculty.”

Nicole Guyette can attest to that. She spent quite a bit of time in the building as a student, receiving a B.S. in biology from UAB in 2006, and an M.S. and OD from the School of Optometry in 2014. Then in 2015, she began her current role as an assistant professor at UABSO. So she has experienced the building’s transformation firsthand.

“When I was a student, it just felt like an old building,” Guyette says. “We didn’t have a lot of places to store our equipment. There wasn’t a lot of usable space in the lab rooms. There was a lack of technology. But it looks like a different building now. Everything is shiny and new, with lots of updated technology. It just makes it feel like a happier place to be.”

One of the biggest changes for the students is the new third-floor lounge, which has a flat-screen tele­vision, refrigerator, microwave, computers, printers, tables and even seating areas that are comfortable enough for a quick nap. Students also have access to the equivalent of a mini convenience store, where they can purchase drinks, snacks and even frozen dinners.

“It’s like an upgraded vending machine,” Nichols says. “Students can walk in and get a muffin or granola bar, scan it, swipe a card, and it’s paid for. That has made a big difference for students who are looking for something quick, including healthy options.

large classroom“The students really love everything about the third floor, because it offers a lot of services that we didn’t have before. It’s now a place where they can congregate, get some relaxation, meet with their friends, and just spend time with each other. We see more and more students hanging out on that floor.”

The third floor also is where the student affairs department is now located. It was moved from the first floor in order to make it more convenient for the students.

“Now when they need something from student affairs, it’s just right down the hall,” says Chris Boutwell, director of Administration and Fiscal Affairs. “We’ve made the third floor much more of a student-centric space.”

Students and faculty are both benefitting from improved teaching areas on the second and third floors. For example, in the renovated pre-clinic teaching space (CEVS), there is now a classroom specifically for pre-clinic lectures and presentations adjacent to the exam lanes. Previously students simply stood around in one small area with no place to sit while watching the clinical demonstration.

Now, each lane room has its own computer, allowing students to work with Electronic Medical Records in pre-clinic. In addition, information and sound can now be transmitted back and forth through any of the exam rooms and the demonstration classroom, enabling students to see and hear what is taking place in other rooms. And there are all sorts of new high-tech gadgets, such as microscopes with video recording capabilities.

smaller classroom“Those give us the ability to let the students see on a monitor what we are seeing through the microscope,” Guyette says. “Students really like that sort of thing. If you can wow them with the technology, you can certainly increase interest and improve teaching.”

The renovations project is being led by archi­tecture firm Birchfield Penuel & Associates LLC. Boutwell says future plans include renovating faculty offices on the fourth and fifth floors, adding a new suite to the ground-floor clinic, and creating simulation labs. The overall goal is to generate a better learning environment that is attractive to students and faculty alike.

“You can tell that the students are happy to be in these new spaces, and that they are proud of these spaces when they’re showing prospective students around,” Nichols says. “That can make a big difference when it comes to a prospective student being able to envision themselves learning in this environment. They wouldn’t be looking at UAB if they weren’t considering us for the education, but we don’t want what the building looks like to be a negative issue in that decision.

“That goes for faculty, too. If you are trying to recruit high-quality professors and advisors, the place where they’ll be working is as important for them as it is for the students. So we want to ensure that we are able to attract and maintain high-quality faculty, staff and students, and the renovated space definitely helps us do that.”