Robot arms, high school students and doctors: a perfect match

JACKSON, WY— How do you make high school students excited about science and healthcare?

A robotic arm definitely helps.

Jackson Hole High School teacher Sammie Smith has offered a digital fabrication lab — AKA “Fab Lab” — class for six years now. But this year, she wanted to focus on something new. Bioengineering felt like a natural evolution.

The class’s focus evolved, but the goal remained the same: to offer high school students hands-on, experienced-based instruction in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)-related fields. It required a lot of community outreach: to physical therapists, to doctors, and to St. John’s Medical Center. That’s where the robot came in.

St. John’s, with the help of St. John’s Hospital Foundation, bought, simply put, a surgical robot this summer to help  perform joint replacement surgeries. The robot is not a replacement surgeon, joked St. John’s Communications Director Karen Connelly. The surgeon is still running the procedure and making the surgical plan. The robotic arm is just a surgical tool—a precision instrument that allows surgeons to create virtual 3D models before entering the operating room, including determining implant size, orientation, and alignment based on each patient’s unique anatomy. During surgery, the surgeon can validate that plan and make any necessary adjustments while guiding the robotic arm to execute the plan.

Smith reached out to St. John’s to ask if her students could see a demonstration of the surgical robot. St. John’s delivered. Not only did Doctor Angus Goetz give Smith’s students a live demonstration of a fake knee replacement surgery—he let them try for themselves. St. John’s also let Smith borrow laparoscopic tools and take them back to her classroom so her students could get more hands-on exposure.

It was the best thing they’d done all year, Smith’s students told her. “They keep asking me when the next field trip is going to be,” Smith said.

Connelly said St. John’s was thrilled to provide the opportunity.

“St. John’s role in the community is much broader than the place you go when you’re sick or injured,” Connelly said. “More and more people are recognizing our leadership around health and wellness—part of that includes engaging young people in the community.”

And, Connelly added, she wouldn’t be surprised if this collaboration encourages students to consider careers in health-related professions—which, according to Smith, is exactly the point. The class fulfills the high school’s “Career Tech Ed” requirement, and most of the students are juniors and seniors. They’re of the age where they’re starting to think about what they want to do after high school, and Smith wants them to make informed decisions.

“I hope they see that the choices they have [in healthcare professions] obviously include becoming nurses, doctors …  but also includes working in innovation, and working in engineering and technologies that bring new procedures to the market and that make that innovation possible,” Connelly said.

Another cool advantage: Smith’s class is more than 50 percent female. Smith says women historically shy away from careers in STEM—they make up only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce despite making up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, according the National Science Foundation. But they do gravitate toward careers in healthcare.

“Females especially have a huge interest in health sciences, but less so specifically in engineering. [The class] seems to pull in some of those female students,” Smith said.

Connelly and Smith both hope to strengthen the partnership between St. John’s and Teton County School District.

“I love the idea of continuing to explore how we can work with Sammie and other educators,” Connelly said.

Sponsored by:

St John’s Medical Center

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