Using virtual reality to inspire our
next generation of surgeons
We talk with Riley Johnson, a principle at a career academy in Fort Wayne, Indiana, US, about his bright idea of using virtual reality (VR) surgical simulators to inspire young students into working in health science.
Riley, tell us about what you do and about the Career Academy?
The academy is part of The Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, based throughout the US, and focusses on skills training for students, 16-17-year-olds, in preparation for college or work.
Our programme, in Fort Wayne, covers over 20 different careers paths, including electricians, auto-mechanics and health science programs. My role is to get students interested and help them identify a career path, using one of our training programs.
I have also started a new program – Younger Age Exploration – that exposes even younger students, 12–14-year-olds, to careers they don’t usually have access to.
How do these programs benefit children?
Young adults can have a hard time understanding what they’re interested in, and how to turn an interest into a career. A CTE program helps students realise what they can and what they can’t do.
It is also a successful pathway into a career. We have seen kids, in our certified nursing program, pick and choose jobs after their course. Facilities here can’t hire enough!
The CTE program has also helped change the narrative, the willingness to support students stepping into fields such as mechanics or surgical tech. It is now seen as a positive opportunity.
That is great, creating sparks of interest to inspire young adults. Is this where the idea for VR simulation came from?
I was looking to identify different opportunities across different industries. We wanted to create emotive interactive experiences that could expose young students to opportunities and skills from highly skilled, high-wage jobs.
We’d already purchased some virtual welders, and some robotic coding devices. Then with health science, I looked at blood pressure simulators and AED simulators. But I was looking for something more transformational and I thought a surgical simulator could provide a really cool experience.
You can have a 17-year-old in a training program and a 14-year-old showing an interest at a school demo. We’ll be able to use the simulator across a wide range of ages, and that’s exciting.
You are our first CTE customer, so congratulations. But how did you discover Surgical Science?
I was made aware that surgical simulators were starting to grow in use in the industry. I dived headfirst into researching and it was really one of three or four main simulator companies that I identified. And I found that LapSim and Surgical Science was what I was looking for. Everything I read made me feel like it was the best choice, given the accessibility and usability. And so got in contact.
And what did you think? When you first experienced the simulator
I was blown away. I thought I’d be way over my head as an educator with no experience in the health field. But within five minutes, I was able to step right in and accomplish some of the tasks, after many attempts!
I knew straight away that we had made the right decision. I knew a 14-year-old, would be interested and excited. I knew a 17-year-old, in a more structured learning environment, could make progress and gain valuable skills. That’s what I was most excited about, it could be used as a learning tool and a career exposure tool.
It’s also amazing to see something that real surgeons are using, something that we can excite young adults about laparoscopic surgery and all the other types of health careers.
And how will you be using the simulator?
Firstly, we are going to take it on the road to our traditional high schools. Using it to spark their curiosity in health as a career. In our school district, we have over 4,000 15-year-olds who will be exposed to our LapSim simulator over the next year. It will be fascinating to see their reactions.
We will also have a series of workshops, where kids come to a central location and check out the simulator. Finally, we will use the LapSim on some of our CTE pathway training programs.
Photo: Students experiencing the wow factor of the LapSim simulator
How will you be measuring the success of this initiative?
We’re going to monitor it in two ways. Firstly, getting critical student feedback about their experience will be vital to help decide what we do next. Then in the long term, we have something called a Meaningful Future Plan and we’ll analyse how many kids join one of our health programs.
We really want to make sure we’re using it in the most effective way. We want to measure, how it influences and supports the decision that students make as they progress in their education.
I look forward to the results. What do you think you they will show?
Optimistic is the word. I think we can say the results will match what we think. It’s a cool thing to have. It’s something a 15-year-old will never see otherwise. We think the factor of how immersive it is will really spark a lot of interest and curiosity.
And when you start to peel back the potential impact, the financial investment isn’t as big as you think. We have roughly 30,000 students from five to eighteen in our school district. That’s a lot of potential!
Then, if we’re successful with this simulator, I could see us expanding our portfolio and maybe look at different types of simulators and more LapSims.
It’s also a great marketing tool for your Career Academy.
Definitely. The LapSim is in my office right now. And since last week the number of people that have poked their head in my office, wondering what it is, has been astounding. It’s not something people are used to seeing. I think the wow factor is really going to help shift some people’s perspective about what teenagers can do.
Also, if that’s the reaction you get from adults, then imagine the reaction you will get from the kids, and since it is essentially a computer game, they’ll pick it up a hundred times faster than me!
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