Rio Rancho-area University of New Mexico nursing students soon won’t have to venture to downtown Albuquerque for real-world simulation training.

Instead, they’ll be able to stay within city limits, graduate sooner and join the workforce sooner, as the UNM College of Nursing is expanding its simulator program to the UNM Health Sciences Center campus in Rio Rancho. Construction of the new training area is expected to be completed by the end of February.

“There’s definitely still folks interested in nursing, wanting to help their fellow New Mexicans, and that’s great. … We can have community members get their nursing training here locally,” said Laura Burton, associate director of business operations at the Rio Rancho campus. “It’s a great resource for this campus. It’s a big investment that the university is putting into the Health Sciences (center).”

Christine Kasper, dean of UNM’s College of Nursing, said the program uses sophisticated, “high-fidelity” mannequins for specific training involving real-life situations, such as delivering a baby or other treatment for a patient prior to getting them to a hospital.

“They can be programmed in different ways,” she said, adding the program expansion will allow an additional 64 Rio Rancho students to enroll.

The UNM College of Nursing’s simulation program, with the lab shown here, is expanding to UNM HSC’s Rio Rancho campus. Photo courtesy of UNM Health Sciences

Amy Levi, vice president of UNM Health Sciences Academic Affairs, said the mannequins are high-tech in that they possess heartbeats and breathing sounds.

“They really do simulate a human being, and it’s a really good opportunity for students to be comfortable interacting with mannequins as though they were people, before they’re actually doing that with people,” Levi said.

She said she procured $900,000 from the state legislature in 2021 to help pay for the new equipment. That money went to things like the renovated space, mannequins, an oxygen-flow system and a video-recording system for teaching purposes.

“All of that is a very expensive, kind of retrofitting that needs to happen,” she said. “The (mannequin) that delivers babies is $50,000, and they’re very realistic. Because I’m a midwife, I know exactly how helpful it is for students to practice attending a delivery before they’re actually in the birth room.”

Kasper said the program allows students to work with more of that real human connection, not only carrying on with a procedure, but also in having the presence of mind to continue informing and comforting patients and their families.

“The more you’re familiar with the situation, the more you can provide that real crucial nursing connection with the patient and family,” she said. “I think this whole new area of simulation is just crucial to modern nursing education.”

Burton said Rio Rancho-area students previously had to do simulator training at UNM’s main campus in Albuquerque, which already had a limited number of available time slots for those sessions.

Now that training opportunities are expanding to Rio Rancho, Burton said more nursing students can prepare to enter the field and help address statewide nursing workforce shortages.