Bioengineering students help improve high school science

3/23/2018 Da Yeon Eom, BioE intern

Written by Da Yeon Eom, BioE intern

Last summer, a high school group from LeRoy, Illinois, came to the University of Illinois campus for a 3D-printing tour and presentation conducted by Pierce Hadley, a senior in bioengineering. A small, rural town about 30 miles northwest of campus, LeRoy has less than 200 students in the entire high school.

One of the LeRoy teachers expressed an interest in introducing 3D-printing to his class because of the opportunities that it could present for his students. However, he had a limited budget, making it difficult to afford the expensive anatomy models.

Hadley, a graduate of Normal Community High School in nearby Bloomington,  remembered how his high school didn’t receive any outside engineering support when he was in school, so he talked to the teachers and offered to lend them some expertise and assistance.

With help from bioengineering sophomores Vignesh Alla, Faisal Masood, and Benjamin David, Hadley launched an outreach effort to support the teachers' instruction and provide them with their own 3D-printed anatomical models.

Using a curated database of medical images of the skull, spine, heart, and brain, the team was able to 3D print actual models.  

“I am incredibly lucky to have found Vignesh, Ben, and Faisal,” says Hadley. “They made my job easy; all I had to do was kindle the inspiration that would make them see the value of this project and teach them the necessary tools along the way.”

The project focused on two initiatives: providing the low-cost anatomy models to underserved schools and teaching surrounding schools about 3D-design and 3D-printing.

“For the anatomy project, which is our main focus moving forward, I wanted to give the underserved schools a unique opportunity to develop a better understanding of anatomy using 3D-models which they could have for free and take home to study,” says Hadley.

The team hopes to provide the high schoolers with training opportunities that improve their anatomy education and teach spatial reasoning skills that spark their interests in engineering and 3D-printing.

According to Hadley, when the team presented guest lectures on anatomy and physiology in the LeRoy classroom, they covered topics like 3D-printing and medical imaging technologies such as CT and MRI. Often, the discussions focused on current advances in bioengineering, specifically in the field of tissue engineering.

As for the teaching aspect of the project, the team took 3D-printers and computers to another school, where they taught fourth and fifth graders about how to use a free 3D-design software called TinkerCad. The students would print the objects that they designed in forms of keychains and then the team would give a short presentation about how 3D-printing can be used for medicine and in everyday life.

“The instructors from LeRoy high school have begun planning additional activities for the students and classes," Hadley says. “This is the ideal situation, where we are able to inspire action from the teachers who can continue doing this initiative even when we have all graduated!”

Furthermore, the group introduced the students to local community fabrication and 3D-printing labs, so they can do the 3D-design at home and have their parents take them to the labs to print.

“My students were excited to be a part of this,” says Brandon Reynolds, anatomy and physiology teacher at LeRoy High School.

“They're a small, curious group, and they relished the opportunity to speak with university students, see the models, and learn about the imaging and computer programs," Reynolds added. "The 3D models offered them an opportunity to explore the fit of bones in a different way, and to have a study aid they could manipulate.”

To support their outreach efforts, Hadley and his group applied for a grant from the University’s Office of Undergraduate Research, which paid for 3D-printing materials, transportation to schools, and MRI/CT scans for making their own 3D-printing database.

Hadley and his team presented the 3D printing and instruction project at the University of Illinois’ Engineering Open House (EOH) in early March, where they won the first-place prize for exemplifying the overall theme of the EOH event— “Drafting the Future”.

“They have demonstrated a dedication to create a useful model for outreach, enthusiasm to explain engineering concepts to students to excite interests, and the foresight to realize the need for funding, then to identify a mechanism,” says Dr. Marcia Pool, teaching associate professor and the team’s advisor for the project.

“Through completing this project, the team is not only educating the pre-college students, they are also creating informal opportunities for the team members to learn new and improve existing engineering skills such as computer-aided design.”

The Bioengineering team won a first-prize award for their outreach project, which they presented at the 2018 Engineering Open House on campus.
The Bioengineering team won a first-prize award for their outreach project, which they presented at the 2018 Engineering Open House on campus.

The demonstration of the project at EOH opened many opportunities for the group because they were able to exchange contact information with visiting teachers and look for larger funding grants to expand to more school districts.

“It is always motivating to see the look of amazement in the kids’ eyes when they come through our booth,” says Hadley. “We want to provide a unique experience unlike any other to keep the kids interested in the science even when they go back to their schools. If we can get just one person excited about bioengineering and want to pursue it in the future, then that is all the success that we can hope for.”

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This story was published March 23, 2018.