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BME HealthReach taking education to the clinic and the bedside.

Durazi Savasir has seen the transformation, when the muddy unfamiliar gives way to comprehension’s dawning. He’s seen it as it happens: the switch going on, revealing the “of course!” moment, illuminated in a child’s face. Savasir has seen it because he helped develop the switch.

“Their eyes light up and they get excited and you can see the information clicking inside their heads,” says Savasir, one of the undergraduate students helping to teach math and science to young hospitalized patients using their own disease as the impetus and catalyst for learning through a program called BME HealthReach.

BME HealthReach, funded directly through Dr. Wilbur Lam’s NSF CAREER grant (Understanding the Contraction Biomechanics of Platelets at the Single-Cell Level), an educational K-12 outreach program that allows undergrad students (like Savasir) in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) to design interactive teaching modules directed toward in-patients and clinical patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Egleston and Hughes-Spalding hospitals.

“It’s well known and well documented that chronically ill children are at risk when it comes to school performance, for multiple reasons,” says Lam, an assistant professor and researcher in BME, and a pediatrician who treats patients at Children’s. “They’re not feeling well, they’re in the hospital quite a bit, missing school days. There are psychological and behavioral issues, all of which put them at risk. The thought we had was, disease and medicine ultimately are at the core of the issue, and these are scientific concepts. So, maybe we can actually enable a child who is chronically ill to leverage their disease to learn about science and math.”

Last summer, Lam (principal investigator in BME HealthReach) and Elaissa Hardy (co-investigator) assembled a class of 12 BME undergraduates in a course called BMED 4803, charging them with devising and ultimately implementing a series of interactive activities that would work in a clinical setting, or at a child’s bedside, to spark an understanding of math and science principles. Under Hardy’s direction, the students developed several hands-on activities that have become a hit with young patients battling sickle cell disease.

"As a practicing pediatric hematologist, I see a lot of patients with sickle cell disease at Children's, so our obvious initial focus is on that particular disease," says Lam. "We plan to expand our reach to cystic fibrosis patients in the fall, and we've already spoken with some of the specialists there."

According to Hardy, the goal is to turn the disease into a potential learning advantage, into motivation to learn about the scientific processes of their disease, which can spark an overall interest in science.

“We ask our undergrads, the teachers in this program, to come up with a way to teach fractions, for example,” Hardy says, explaining a Lego tower contrivance to help explain, say, how a 12-hour day in the hospital is broken up into different parts (meals, examinations, sleep, and so forth).

Naturally, hospital-based supplies and equipment (such as IV poles and spirometers) are used for some hands-on science and math enrichment, as well as other common educational tools (rulers, calculators, and so forth). Meanwhile, the BME undergrads, or teachers, who have already undertaken a diverse, multi-disciplinary scientific and mathematic curriculum, integrate the concepts they’ve learned into their teaching of young patients, emphasizing that interdisciplinary nature of medicine (biology, physics, chemistry, and math).

BME HealthReach follows statewide educational standards for K-12 science and math, focusing on topics that include (among other things) cell structure and function, the purpose of major human body organ systems, heredity and evolution. The BME undergrads are helping their young students get a handle on computational skills to solve real-world problems, with the hope, according to Hardy, to “inspire our pediatric patients to become future researchers, physicians, and engineers who, because of their disease, will develop a true passion for science and math.”

Along the way, there is some actual engineering work being done as BME undergrads spend a semester designing and improving different activities that demonstrate processes like oxygen circulation, or allow a child patient to actually make blood. Well, sort of. This is one of the more popular activities.

Each patient/student makes his own mason jar of blood to take home, to help understand the different parts of blood function: plasma (corn syrup), red and white blood cells (represented by appropriately colored beads) and platelets (pearl-colored beads). When it’s all mixed together, it looks like a mason jar of thick moonshine, swimming with plastic beads.

Not only does the exercise teach a student about the composition of blood, but there is an opportunity to learn a little bit about sickle cell disease. “One of the things about sickle cell disease is, these kids need to stay hydrated. They are constantly told to drink more water, drink more fluids, and they don’t typically have a visual for that,” says Hardy, pouring water into one of the mason jars, mixing it up, changing the viscosity of the faux blood. “See, it can be a powerful visual for a kid.”

The pieces and parts of the hands-on tools created by the BME undergrads are simple stuff, made of plastic, laminated visual aids, and odd bits of candy. But they demonstrate essential biological processes: A concave piece of red candy plays a normal, healthy red blood cell, transports an oxygen molecule (a small blue M&M) like it’s supposed to, through a laminated model of the human body; a banana-flavored (and shaped) piece of candy represents the sickle cell, which can’t adequately transport oxygen. It’s a lesson about basic cell function, using a disease the child is living with every day, and a simple, elegant tool.

“The process of making these activities is a subtle application of the stuff we’ve learned in our engineering classes,” says Savasir, a third-year student majoring in biomedical engineering. He came to the Georgia Institute of Technology with the intention of eventually going to medical school, and biomedical engineering seemed like the perfect undergraduate avenue toward that. But something happened since Savasir signed up for BMED 4803 (i.e., BME HealthReach) last summer.

Like many of his fellow BME HealthReach undergrads, Savasir wanted to be a physician, because when they thought of “medicine,” the first profession they thought of was, “doctor.” But all of the face-to-face time with young patients, and the hours spent in research and design, and the hours spent in a hospital setting, have given them something else to think about, something a little bigger.

“After all this, I don’t know if I want to go to medical school, because this experience has given me a better feel for academia,” he says. “It hasn’t turned me off medical school and it hasn’t made me not want to be a doctor. But BME HealthReach has made me reconsider my options. It’s broadened my view.”


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