UC Merced Connect: Researchers to develop virtual center for learning disabilities

UC Merced researchers will develop a virtual center to support parents and caregivers, as well as health and other professionals, in detecting and treating developmental disorders in Merced County children, work made possible by a grant from First 5 Merced County.

Psychology professor Jeff Gilger and Blum Center interim Executive Director Steve Roussos are leading the two-year project, which is an example of how the university’s innovative work can serve the community. The research will focus on at-risk children up to 5 years old, ages when many disorders remain undetected.

“Thousands of children get lost in the system and aren’t diagnosed with learning or other developmental problems,” said Gilger, Carlston Cunningham chair in cognitive development. “Early detection and treatment can significantly help a child, preventing a cascade of problems later in life.”

Merced County’s youths are particularly at risk for these disorders, given the county’s demographics: high rates of poverty, poor prenatal care, lack of stimulating environments, inadequate access to services and a host of other factors, Gilger said.

“This is a chance to give our campus an opportunity to do what it does best – using research and measurement in a very tangible way to help people,” Roussos said.

Many people are familiar with developmental problems such as autism or Down syndrome, yet there is a wide spectrum of disorders, and professional help can be difficult to find, even for middle- to upper-class parents, he said.

This is especially true for the more subtle developmental disorders such as learning disabilities. Parents who are just getting by financially have an even more difficult time finding assistance.

The $383,788 grant was awarded last month by First 5 Merced County and is being administered by the Health Sciences Research Institute. The university’s Blum Center is part of the research and outreach. Two graduate students and a couple of dozen undergraduate students will help with the research and analysis, and a programmer will be hired to develop the center’s website.

Gilger hopes this is the first step toward a brick-and-mortar center that would be a one-stop shop for parents and medical professionals.

Campus expands

UC Merced’s Engineering Building 2 officially opened Aug. 27 and will foster interdisciplinary work for researchers across campus.

“We’re continuing a concept that has been important since the campus itself was being planned – collaboration between the schools,” Academic Facilities Planning Director Steve Rabedeaux said.

Some labs are designed for different disciplines to use simultaneously. The building also has a number of public spaces that allow opportunities for group work, as well as educational and social gatherings.

For example, the space between the two science and engineering buildings has been transformed from a fire lane to an area with shade, seating and tables to facilitate student collaboration right outside the instructional labs in buildings that flank the new plaza.

With more than 100,000 square feet inside, the new building provides room for the campus to grow, campus architect Tom Lollini said.

The building includes room for robotics, thermodynamics, electron microscopy, engineering service learning and organic chemistry labs, among others, an energy-efficient computer-server room with water-cooled racks for the equipment and a high-resolution imaging suite. The new structure will also allow the environmental science faculty members, now housed at the Castle Research Facility, to move to campus.

The $88 million building incorporates the campus philosophy of recycling-reusing-reclaiming, with construction crews diverting 1,500 tons of material from area landfills. About 40 percent of the materials used in the building’s construction are recycled or reclaimed.

It’s also highly energy efficient, with a photovoltaic structure that shades the building’s promontory and glassed “activity bar,” which house most of the building’s conference rooms and collaborative spaces.

The structure doesn’t just shade the building, though. It also generates 52 kilowatts of solar energy to help power the building.

Lollini said the building is expected to achieve platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design status from the U.S. Green Building Council, which will make it the seventh of eight expected platinum awards for the campus.