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 new level with the opening 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 generating lots of excitement among faculty and students.

Shady Side Academy’s McIlroy Center for Science and Innovation
See Shady Side Academy’s McIlroy Center for Science and Innovation firsthand at its upcoming open house.

“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.

The McIlroy Center features 10 flexible learning spaces that serve as 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 spectometer (GC-MS), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine, real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, materials testing bench, fluorescent 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.”

This equipment has opened up the possibilities for 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 will use the scanning electron microscope to analyze the compositions of tourmaline minerals in the museum’s research collection.

The McIlroy Center includes a dedicated space for independent student research – a 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 also 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 SSA 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.”

Learn more about Shady Side Academy Senior School at an open house on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 6:30 p.m. RSVP online at or call 412-968-3180 to schedule a personal tour anytime.