Rockwood Health System earlier this month hosted its second annual science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine event designed to introduce local high school students to robotic surgery.
The event, dubbed STEM2, was staged through a partnership between Washington State University, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Spokane Community College, local high schools, and Rockwood Health System’s Deaconess Hospital.
Over the course of the two-day event, held Nov. 4 and 5, about 370 students from 10 high schools visited WSU Spokane’s South Campus facility, at 412 E. Spokane Falls Blvd., to view and test operate a da Vinci Surgical System, typically housed at Deaconess.
The da Vinci is a robotic surgical system created by Sunnydale Calif.-based Intuitive Surgical Inc. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000, the device is designed for use in complex surgery using a minimally invasive approach and is controlled by a surgeon from a console.
Carol Dever, who teaches biomedical sciences at Mead High School, brought 14 students from her class to participate in the event. She says the class she teaches is part of a four-year biomedical sciences curriculum developed by Project Lead The Way, a national STEM-focused nonprofit.
“Mead was the first high school in this region to start the program, and WSU is our affiliate university that provides teachers with training for it,” Dever says.
She says the course is an elective through which students can earn college credit while learning about biomedical sciences.
“We often talk about our biomedical science program at Mead as a pipeline for future health care workers,” she says. “Throughout the four years, students also earn career and technical education credits, and the focus is on exposing them to health care careers relating to the course content.”
First-year students, for example, learn about diabetes, cholesterol, and heart conditions, which is then followed by learning about associated career pathways such as becoming a cardiac technician or a diabetic nurse, Dever says.
“Awesome things are happening with this program,” she asserts. “In addition to learning about topics related to biomedicine, we also teach students skills in public speaking, research, and other 21st century skills.”
Dever says because the fourth year of the course is titled biomedical innovations, the two-day event was a perfect tie-in to the student’s studies.
“Events like this are an important way for us to be able to connect students to the world of health care and medicine,” she says.
Two of Dever’s students who attended the event, Poli McCanna and Bailey Thompson, are seniors at Mead who are interested in pursuing careers in biomedical fields.
McCanna, who is interested in a career in chemical engineering, says the event serves as a way for students who have an interest in STEM careers to narrow their focus.
“Things like this really show you what you can do,” she says. “In becoming an engineer, I might not be a surgeon, but I could still be working on equipment like this. So it’s one of those careers that has broader connections to the medical field.”
Thompson agrees, saying, “There’s a big difference between the real world and school. Events like this give you an opportunity to try things and reassure yourself that this is the career you want to be doing.”
Thompson, who is interested in becoming either an orthopedic or trauma surgeon, says her grandfather has been part of her inspiration to pursue a medical career.
“He was a big part of why I’m interested, but all these experiences that are available to us just make me more certain that this is something I want to keep pursuing,” she says.
Jaime Ziebert, director of robotic surgery at Deaconess, was at the event to help show students how the device is used to perform surgeries.
She says Deaconess has two da Vinci robotic units, the SI and the XI models, each of which cost about $2 million. During the event, students worked with the XI robotic system, the same technology surgeons use at Deaconess.
“These systems are used probably five days a week at Deaconess, in several surgical specialties including urology, benign gynecology, gynecological oncology, colorectal, and thoracic surgeries,” Ziebert says. ““Each of these robotic systems are made up of three components which speak to one another.”
The first part of the system is what’s called the patient-side cart. This is the robotic piece that hovers over the surgical field during a surgery, she says.
The second part is the surgeon’s console, where the physician sits during the surgery, and which manipulates the patient-side cart’s arms.
The third piece is called the visual tower. It houses the system’s central processing unit and enables it to access stored instructions.
To test the machines, students were invited to sit at the surgeon’s console, lean forward and press their faces into the virtual display’s goggles, and then direct the machine’s robotic controls with their hands.
The visual display functioned similarly to a ring-toss game, with the student directing the robot’s arms to pick up tiny rings and drop them down onto spires of colorful tissue. Students were encouraged to compete to see who could complete the game in the quickest time, with the most precision.
Ziebert says Rockwood Health considers STEM events like this helpful, because they provide a pathway to inspire students toward pursuing careers in math and sciences.
“With these events, we try to engage the student community as much as possible, so we can show them what their future can be,” she says. “STEM projects they’re working on now can lead directly into their future careers, and it’s particularly wonderful to enable them access to this kind of technology right here in Spokane.”
Originally from Eugene, Ore., Ziebert has worked at Deaconess for two years. She holds an associate’s degree in surgical technology from Skyline College in San Bruno Calif., a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Oregon, and a master’s in business administration from Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Oregon.
Ziebert has 25 years of operating room experience as a certified surgical technician and then as a certified surgical first assistant, devoting the past 10 years exclusively to robotic surgery.
She says Deaconess has performed about 1,500 robotic surgeries since it’s robotic surgery department started here in 2009.
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