Shady Side Academy’s New McIlroy Center Takes Science to a New Level

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Shady Side Academy has taken science education to a whole new level with the opening of the McIlroy Center for Science and Innovation on its 130-acre Senior School campus in Fox Chapel this past fall. The 22,000-square-foot, Gold LEED-certified building is generating lots of excitement among faculty and students, and opening up all sorts of new possibilities for learning and research.

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“The building was constructed with our style of pedagogy in mind, which simply put, is experiential learning: experiment, analysis and reflection,” said Science Department Chair Dr. Joe Martens. “Students build their understanding of concepts based on the analysis and reflection of experiments.”

The McIlroy Center features 10 flexible learning spaces that serve as both classroom and lab in one, allowing teachers to move seamlessly from concept to demonstration.

“I love having the ability to grab chemicals to do a demonstration in response to a student question without walking to another part of the building,” said chemistry teacher John Landreth. “It gives us the ability to be more responsive to questions from the kids.”

Senior Eric Han agreed. “I am a hands-on learner,” Han said. “After learning a concept in a classroom setting, we can immediately demonstrate the concept in a lab, and that helps me visualize the idea that is being taught.”

The labs are outfitted with state-of-the-art, college-level equipment not typically seen in a high school – including a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, materials testing bench, fluorescence microscope, scanning electron microscope, gel documentation system, and -80C degree freezer.

“For the most part you will not find a collection of this type of equipment outside of college or private research institutions,” said Martens. “We’ve set the stage for students to be engaged in more sophisticated experiments in our advanced classes and opened new doors for students to propose independent studies with a higher level of scope and complexity.”

For example, Organic Chemistry classes are using the NMR spectrometer to analyze the molecular structure of distillates. Advanced Biology classes are using the real-time PCR and fluorescence microscope to study the mechanisms of gene regulation. Physics classes are using the materials testing bench to accurately measure friction forces and elastic forces according to Hooke’s Law.

“To see the sense of awe in a student’s face when we examine and appreciate the intricate detail of the eye of a fruit fly at 20000x magnification on the scanning electron microscope is really something,” said Martens.

The new equipment also has opened up collaborations with Pittsburgh organizations. For example, chemistry teacher Dr. Devon Renock has initiated a project with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History where SSA students are using the scanning electron microscope to analyze the compositions of tourmaline minerals in the museum’s research collection.

The McIlroy Center also includes a dedicated space for independent student research – the Special Projects Room is adjacent to the faculty office suite, separated by a glass partition, giving students supervised access to research space throughout the day.

The brick-and-glass building incorporates sustainable features that reduce environmental impact while creating teaching opportunities, such as a rain garden that collects storm runoff and rooftop solar panels that supply electricity to the grid.

“I really appreciate the message that the new building sends: that Shady Side Academy is committed to a world-class STEM education,” said physics teacher Dr. Kelly VandenBosch. “The equipment in the building – real research equipment – is allowing us to be really creative about how we approach the science curriculum and opening the doors for fascinating independent research by students.” 

Aside from all of the classwork and research, the McIlroy Center has become a popular gathering spot on campus as well. The building’s spacious commons area is bustling with students studying or hanging out during the school day, and also plays host to evening events and programs for the community.

“It is a lovely, dynamic space,” said physics teacher Dr. Scott Peterson.  “It feels like there are always interesting things going on. All sorts of teachers are trying new things and are reinvigorated by the access to new equipment, technology and better space.”

Learn more about Shady Side Academy Senior School and tour the campus, including the McIlroy Center, at a spring admissions open house on Saturday, April 27, at 11 a.m. RSVP online at or call 412-968-3180 to schedule a personal tour anytime.