Shady Side Academy’s McIlroy Center for Science and Innovation

Taking Science Education to a New Level

Shady Side Academy is taking science education to a whole new level with the construction of the McIlroy Center for Science and Innovation on its 130-acre Senior School campus in Fox Chapel. The 22,000-square-foot, Gold LEED-certified building is scheduled to open in Fall 2018.

The McIlroy Center will serve as home to the Senior School Science Department, with 10 flexible classroom/labs for biology, chemistry and physics; large, responsive spaces for research, collaboration and independent study; and an outdoor amphitheater for classes, lectures and events.

Science is fast becoming a distinctive strength at Shady Side, where the academic program is driven by collaboration, research and hands-on inquiry. Students are building robots, winning Science Olympiad titles and conducting independent research under the expert guidance of teachers with advanced degrees and real-world experience. Seventy-five percent of the Senior School science faculty holds advanced degrees, including four PhDs.

“The McIlroy Center for Science and Innovation will enhance our inquiry-based approach to teaching science,” said SSA Senior School Head Sophie Lau. “The design of the building will support students as they engage in the work of research scientists – collaborating with each other and their teachers as they collect, analyze and present data to further their understanding of the most current issues facing scientists today.”

“We have always been a department committed to hands-on learning,” said chemistry teacher Tom Rossi. “Science is not something theoretical that you read about in a book. It’s something that’s hands-on, it’s data-based, it’s empirical.”

As the academic program has grown in strength, however, it has outgrown its facilities, which now limit what teachers and students can do. All Senior School science classes currently share one large multi-purpose lab, often concurrently. Classrooms are separated from the lab, meaning teachers can’t move from concept to demonstration without walking across the building – sometimes across campus. The McIlroy Center’s flexible learning spaces serve as classroom and lab in one, allowing teachers to present a concept and move right to a demonstration.

“Right now, there are periods where we have three classes on top of each other trying to use the same equipment, and it works if we stick to a certain schedule,” said Rossi. “But in the new facility, if we get an idea to do an experiment, we can just turn the tables around and it’s a 30-second transition from classroom to lab.”

“A lot of active teaching happens in our labs,” said chemistry teacher Richard Gable. “All of our labs are open-ended – kids have to make adaptions and change things on the fly. And the teacher is actually instructing in the lab, talking to the students about what’s happening.”

The faculty is particularly excited about the state-of-the-art, college-level lab equipment that is planned for the new facility, which will open up a world of possibilities – equipment such as a gas chromatography (GC) machine, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine, real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, materials testing bench, fluorescent microscope, scanning electron microscope, gel documentation system and -80 lab freezer.

With that caliber of equipment, students will be able to do more in-depth experimentation with more reliable results, and advanced classes can engage in higher-level research.

For example, the current lab has a standard PCR machine that allows advanced biology students to amplify and replicate DNA, but they can only observe the end product after the process is complete. A real-time PCR machine will allow students to observe DNA fragments being amplified and replicated as the process actually occurs.

“Not many high school labs have this type of equipment,” said Science Department Chair Dr. Joe Martens, who previously taught and did genetic research at the University of Pittsburgh and Hamilton College. “When our kids go on to study science in college, this is the kind of equipment and methodology they’ll be using.”

“From a college application standpoint, the ability to start doing some independent research with this instrumentation is going to give our students such an advantage – they can say that they’ve actually used a real-time PCR or an NMR,” said biology and chemistry teacher Dr. Devon Renock, a former assistant professor at Dartmouth College.

The new facility also will allow SSA to better support student independent research. One of the current challenges for students wanting to do independent studies is finding a free period in their schedule when the lab is free and a teacher is available to supervise them. The McIlroy Center will have a special projects room adjacent to the faculty office suite, separated by a glass partition, giving students supervised access to research space throughout the day, with storage for long-term projects.

“The special projects room will be a really important space for us,” said Martens. “It is designed to be a dedicated place where students can go to do independent research, and with the window into the faculty office, there will always be somebody there to provide supervision. It also will serve as a ‘drop-in center’ for students to finish or make up lab work from class.”

The building’s sustainable features will not only reduce its environmental impact but also create new teaching opportunities, such as a rain garden that collects storm runoff and rooftop solar panels that supply a percentage of the building’s electricity.

“We talk about green design in class, but soon our students will be able to see those features in action, from the rain garden to the solar roof panels,” said environmental science teacher Leah Powers.

The school’s technology programs will also benefit from the construction of the new building. Once the McIlroy Center is open, the current science spaces will be renovated into a new technology center and maker space, giving the school’s Computer Science Department and programs such as Robotics and Science Olympiad a dedicated home.

Check out the McIlroy Center’s live construction webcam at

Learn more about Shady Side Academy Senior School and its academic programs at an open house on Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call 412-968-3180 or RSVP online at