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Sally Pardue, interim director of the Millard Oakley STEM Center, visits with photographers on at the Seventh Avenue entrance.
New opportunities in education and research begin in May when the doors of Ray Morris Hall open to welcome visitors to the Millard Oakley STEM Center at Tennessee Tech University.

The opening of TTU’s newest building fulfills plans to create a permanent home for STEM education activities. But the grand opening also means launching new teaching and research efforts to capture the imagination of area children and inspire them to pursue careers in STEM fields.

With main lobby trusses exposed and natural light illuminating the lobby, the building features flexible, innovative lab space, a 240-seat auditorium and a virtual theatre.

“What sparks kids’ interest in science and math? That’s the question the building and the center is designed to help us answer,” said STEM Center interim director Sally Pardue, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“The building offers unique learning facilities created and equipped for experiences in math and science.”

In fact, Ray Morris Hall classrooms will also function as education research labs equipped with observational cameras and microphones.

“Campus faculty members are developing new teaching strategies and methodologies for STEM subjects,” said Pardue. “It is important to quantitatively and qualitatively assess and evaluate the student learning that results. The facility can support new research directions.”

On May 7, university officials will join STEM Center benefactors, Ray Morris and Millard Oakley, NASA astronaut and TTU alumnus Barry Wilmore, and state and local dignitaries, in an afternoon grand opening ceremony.

Upper Cumberland businessman and shareholder of First National Bank of Tennessee, Oakley and his wife, J.J., committed $2 million to launch STEM center efforts.

The building constructed to house the STEM Center is named for Morris, president of Venture Construction Co. and a 1959 TTU civil engineering graduate, whose significant contribution helped fund the facility.

During the ceremony, a NASA representative will talk about the facility’s designation as a NASA Educator Resource Center. Located in select planetariums, museums and university campuses across the nation, Educator Resource Centers often partner with state education departments or regional educational organizations. The centers help teachers learn about and use NASA's educational resources.

Pardue anticipates many public events for the center to showcase research and host guest speakers.

“We want to build strong community relationships, from adults to pre-schoolers,” she said.

The Cumberland Plateau Regional Science and Engineering Fair will call Ray Morris Hall home in the future. Pardue says this will help showcase efforts at the center by supporting teachers as they help students prepare projects; TTU faculty could also serve as mentors.

State and university officials broke ground for the $8 million, 26,000-square-foot Ray Morris Hall in early May 2008. Currently, furnishings are being delivered and technology installation is being completed.

The public is invited to the formal ceremony at 1:30 p.m. on May 7. In addition to a traditional ribbon cutting, guests will also be able to walk through the new facility. Visitors will have a chance to see the unveiling of the lobby’s featured work of art, the Soaring Science Eagle, crafted by sculptor Brad Sells, and watch a video about how the eagle was inspired, designed and carved.