High school students team up to design surgical devices

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Centaurus High School students design and build surgical crawlers under the direction of CU engineering graduate teaching fellows.
Students take turns at the controls as they attempt to maneuver their robotic devices through a mock-up of a patient's abdomen, which uses colored playdough to represent tissue.
Students then measure the biopsied playdough to see if it's within acceptable range.

To some, it may seem like an odd combination of high-tech equipment—remote-control servo-motors, transmitters, computers, and cameras—and basic household items like rubber bands, string, and popsicle sticks.

But teenagers in Lafayette and Longmont are taking the first steps toward testing their design concepts for an innovative surgical tool that could one day be an alternative to laproscopic surgery.

Such a robotic device, known as a surgical crawler, would ultimately be small enough that it could be inserted into a patient’s abdomen to find and biopsy diseased tissue, such as to diagnose the condition known as endometriosis, according to Brandi Briggs, a PhD student in mechanical engineering.

Challenges include designing the crawler so that it can be inserted through a relatively small incision and be maneuvered around the abdomen to accomplish the task in a short amount of time.

Briggs joined with fellow graduate student Benjamin Terry, who works on similar biomedical device research in the laboratory of CU Professor Mark Rentschler, to develop the pre-engineering curriculum as part of their National Science Foundation-funded graduate teaching fellowships through the college’s Integrated Teaching and Learning Program.

They started with a two-month module on biomedical engineering at the Denver School of Science and Technology in fall 2010, and then expanded it into a full-semester course for about a dozen students at Skyline High School in Longmont last spring. Briggs is continuing to teach the course this year, enrolling 25 juniors in the fall at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, and 47 juniors in two additional classes at Skyline this semester. Both schools have handson STEM curriculums with direct involvement from CU engineering GK12 fellows, aimed at increasing the number of students who choose engineering as their career path.

“Engineering impacts our daily lives in so many ways,” a Centaurus student commented after completing the course. “Engineering takes knowledge of science and uses it to create solutions for problems that people are having.”

Briggs says the bioengineering elective has attracted a high ratio of women and underrepresented minority students in particular, “which was really exciting to see in an engineering elective.”

The course’s focus on a women’s health challenge, endometriosis, along with the fact that the surgical devices being developed are closely related to current R&D at the university, may be helping to attract student interest in the course. Overall, Briggs says, “Our hypothesis is that what gets them so excited is they’re doing something relevant to society and that gives them a lot of interest and motivation.”

The outcome for many is that they see themselves being capable of more than they previously thought. “I’ve had a lot of girls tell me they’re a lot more interested in robotics now because it doesn’t seem like such a big hurdle to them anymore,” Briggs says.

Briggs and Terry have presented the surgical device curriculum to two different national conferences, and also have published it on TeachEngineering.org, the NSF-funded digital library collection of K–12 engineering curricula developed by a consortium of engineering schools under the leadership of CU–Boulder Associate Dean Jacquelyn Sullivan.•

>Learn more at itll.colorado.edu/

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