by Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV, with Rebecca Taylor, Program and Project Facilitator at Monash Tech School.
This piece appears in the June 2023 edition of Science Victoria magazine. All issues can be read online for free at rsv.org.au/Science-Victoria.
Making health super fun, super creative, and super innovative, secondary school students have been thinking about how they could transform healthcare as part of programs run by Monash Tech School. They have taken on the role of scientists, and combined scientific disciplines to design and prototype cutting-edge solutions that tackle challenges experienced by workers and patients in Victoria’s healthcare system.
In the Superhumans program, run from 2017-2020, Year 7 students worked in teams to design implants, smart clothing, wearables, and bionic devices for people with various impediments or diseases. The popularity of Fitbit and other wearable fitness devices is driving the innovation of wearable medical technologies for a variety of clinical uses. Advances in soft, flexible, and stretchable sensors have offered a good opportunity to design various types of wearable flexible medical devices for continuous health monitoring and preventive medicine, such as non-invasive blood glucose sensors. Furthermore, developments in wireless technology, smaller devices, and computing power are changing the landscape of the interconnectedness of devices for bionic eyes and heart monitors. A rapidly ageing population, the shift toward delivering in-home healthcare, and the increasing prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases are expected to boost a need for medical devices in the next decade. As part of the program, student teams investigated a medical condition and used case studies and props to put themselves in the shoes of those living with it to better understand patient needs. Students were challenged to brainstorm ideas for medical implants and devices, such as bionics, that consider how technologies will interface with humans and impact our lives for the better.
Similar to research teams in the medical technology (MedTech) industry, Monash Tech School emphasises the importance of people with different skill sets coming together to work on a project. No one person is an expert in everything, and research groups are becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Within their teams, students were allocated roles and investigated the problem from different angles (e.g., investigating the electronics element or the intricacies of human anatomy). With electronics, microscopes, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and a materials library at their disposal, the sky’s the limit.
By the end of the program, student teams had built a model prototype and pitched it to an audience of their peers. One group of students from Wellington Secondary College designed and pitched a device to replace a faulty heart valve. The team created a prototype with Lego and then a 3-D printed model of their valve replacement that could fit inside a heart. Another group of students created an eye pump system for glaucoma patients. Vision loss experienced with glaucoma is usually caused by a clogging of the eye’s drainage system such that fluid builds up in the eye and presses on sensitive nerve fibres. Students pitched a bionic drainage pump device to drain fluid, thereby alleviating pressure on nerves in the eye to restore vision.
As technologies advance, engineered enhancements, such as those designed by students, will become increasingly accessible. People already use prosthetic limbs, heart valves, bionic ears and eyes, and there will be many more devices and aids on the market in the near future. People who incorporate these technologies into their lives will require support to accept their new life as a “cyborg”. Ford Australia, Deakin University, and Griffith University predicted this need in their 100 Jobs of the Future report1, listing “cyborg psychologist” as a role that will emerge in the coming years. A future cyborg psychologist would work with people with synthetic organs, robotic limbs and body implants, to help them ease into the transition of living as cyborgs. As part of its current Superskills series, Monash Tech School developed an online program, Cyborg Psychologist, to encourage students to imagine a career becoming or training future Cyborg Psychologists.
In the Superhealth program (2018-2020), Year 9 students took a more overarching approach to healthcare. Their challenge was to create visions of future hospitals, learning from the experiences of professionals currently working in the healthcare sector to inform their hospital designs. Part of the program involved thinking about the best way to diagnose diseases and find the most effective treatments. Students looked at microscopy slides of patient samples and identified signs of disease pathology – but they soon realised that this alone is not enough to decide on a treatment. Students were introduced to the idea of personalised healthcare based on the genetics of disease. They analysed mock patient DNA samples using Bento Lab boxes – devices that function as a portable molecular biology lab, combining five pieces of scientific equipment into one. By sequencing DNA samples and looking for specific genetic markers, they could determine what type of cancer a patient had, which bacterium a patient is infected with, and answer other questions.
Jumping into the industry side of healthcare, students also learnt about the synthesis of therapeutic proteins (e.g. insulin, hormones, therapeutic antibodies, etc.). To make large batches of therapeutic proteins, the biotechnology industry makes use of bacteria and yeast that reproduce in large numbers without the need to ever rest. Scientists genetically modify bacteria or yeast by inserting a gene encoding a given protein, turning them into little factories to pump out a limitless amount of protein. The bacterium E.coli, for example, reproduces every 20 minutes, and can therefore be manipulated to produce an exponentially increasing amount of a protein once provided with the genetic instructions. Students tried their hands at genetic engineering themselves, introducing the “green fluorescent protein” gene into E.coli, making the bacteria glow green under ultraviolet light when successful.
Students get hands-on with equipment, encouraging tactile learning and sparking an interest in STEM among some students who had not previously considered it. The genetic engineering and biotechnology experiments performed by students in Monash Tech School programs are typically not covered until their second or third year of an undergraduate university degree. But under the guidance of Monash Tech School staff, they successfully complete all tasks. ‘This proves that biotechnology is not beyond secondary students,’ says Andrew Gray, a former Monash Tech School Lab Facilitator.
After the completion of a core or online program, students are encouraged to continue their exploration of health industries by participating in a hands-on industry-focused event. Monash Tech School has partnered with Holmesglen’s Faculty of Health Science, Youth and Community Services Simulation Centre to co-design and deliver Industry Immersion Days, which focus on careers in Healthcare sectors, especially given the students’ proximity to Monash Medical Centre, Monash Children Hospital and the new Victorian Heart Hospital. In these Industry Immersions, students rotate through hands-on sessions that allow them to use technology in a simulated environment, meet medical professionals, and learn about the occupations in demand and the pathways options available. Students also earn digital microcredentials as they complete tasks that align with key skills – a modern approach to collecting physical certificates of participation. Healthcare occupations are in strong demand, and Industry Immersions are an opportunity to engage students in investigations that allow them to make informed decisions about which pathways they may pursue in the future.
Monash Tech School programs build and elevate technology and innovation skills in the next generation of students going into the STEM workforce. They also foster communication, teamwork and project management acumen by challenging students to collaborate in interdisciplinary teams to ideate, prototype and pitch a solution. As a team, students are given the responsibility to learn the different technologies and apply their knowledge and technology to explore and create their own solutions or create a vision of how technology could be used to augment healthcare. Students are encouraged to dream big in their design-thinking process, and some of their ideas may evolve to take their place in the MedTech industry in years to come.
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