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MedTech Program Ignites Passion for Innovation in High School Students

The two-week summer program was designed to give students from various backgrounds the opportunity to collaborate on medical device prototype creation with the guidance of established innovators in the mechanical engineering industry.

Hardware Park MedTech Design Experience
Photo Credit: Gabriel Talley of Uphill Growth
Restoration Academy student Isaiah Williams-Scott’s emotions were a mix of excitement and trepidation as he walked into the expansive walls of Birmingham, Ala.’s Hardware Park, a new tech hub focused on product design and development.

Williams-Scott was one of eight students selected to participate in the MedTech Device Experience, a two-week summer program that gathered students from diverse backgrounds across the Birmingham metro area and paired them with expert engineering and design instructors for hands-on medical device design training. Initially recommended by one of his teachers, Williams-Scott approached the opportunity with a hint of uncertainty because he was unsure whether a career in STEM was the right path for him.

“Although I was apprehensive at first, my innate interest in engineering made me want to give it a try,” Williams-Scott told Government Technology. “After brainstorming ideas the first week for medical devices that could either be enhanced or created in groups, we actually formed a prototype for an inhaler watch created to supplement a regular medical inhaler. Our group got through the most challenging part together which was the brainstorming process — navigating tons of information to decide what device we wanted to fix based on medical needs.”

Unpacking complex ideas and visualizations such as this was an essential focus of the program. Could a group of students from various backgrounds who hadn’t been exposed to designing prototypes, creating sketches through voice descriptions, or uncovering methods to compare existing technologies for medical treatment work together to bring complex medical models to life?

According to MedTech instructor and principal at PUSH Product Design Lloyd Cooper, the program was initially created to answer that very question.

“My company has been doing medical device development for several years here in Birmingham, working closely with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to design various medical tools from surgical instruments to wheelchairs,” Cooper said. “Seeing what UAB has done working with their current students in its Biomedical Engineering program focused on the medical technology space, and knowing that programs like that are looking for some of the brightest students in our state to be able to come into similar programs and be successful, we wanted to be able to help prepare students for that by meeting the city’s students where they are at the high school level.”

“We gave them the fundamentals to visualize their ideas and communicate with them to see how rapidly they could glean new information and apply it toward something meaningful to the world,” he added.

Of the program’s eight participants, six current high school students and two recent graduates within the Birmingham metro area were chosen by their teachers or recommended through the Birmingham Promise, a city program that connects students with college scholarships and apprenticeships. The participants included Isaiah Williams-Scott (Restoration Academy); Joseph Drake (Carver High School); Caren Smith (Woodlawn High School); Jeremy Harper (Ramsay International Baccalaureate High School); Molly Elmore (Vestavia Hills High School); Brooks Denson (Homewood High School); Matthew Eligwe (Hoover High School); and Enoch Booher (Vestavia Hills High School).

Jeremy Harper from Ramsay IB explained that the program pushed him to pursue skills that had resonated with him since he was young.

“To truly explain where my interest in the STEM field derives from, I’d have to go back to when I was younger. I loved designing and building different things — whether it involved taking a piece of cardboard and making something out of it, drawing, or analyzing tools with different components to take them apart so I could learn how to put them back together,” Harper shared. “So being able to participate in this type of program to have the opportunity to build a medical device that could save millions of people throughout the world was perfect for me.”

Educator and mechanical engineer Mark Conner spearheaded the execution of the program as the executive director at Hardware Park. He said students didn’t come into the program with any preconceived notions about what they would be working on, but just embraced the experience.

“It was kind of a step of faith on their part,” he said. “The one thing we asked them to do prior to arriving was watch a TED Talk that featured our very own Lloyd Cooper, where he focused on bending constraints, which is one of the technical lessons that we taught during the program. But other than that video, we wanted to give the students the freedom to create based on what they visualized.”

According to Conner, in the first week of the program, the students would spend mornings working with Cooper and Foster Phillips, both industrial designers for PUSH, to learn everything from general design to the technical process they use to build simple prototypes. The afternoons were centered around placing the students into two groups of four and giving them a blank canvas to create from.

“We just asked that they brainstorm some problems and look at ones they thought could be addressed with new medical devices and then we helped them narrow that search a little bit,” Conner said. “Both teams ended up coming up with two areas that they thought would be viable, and after creating benchmarks to look at what is already happening in that space, both teams realized that one of their two product ideas had so many people already creating that type of product that it might not be worth the effort, so they both pivoted, which showed an increase in the critical thinking skills we were working to instill with this program.”

The ability to think critically and pivot to new ideas in a short period of time is where a challenge quickly turned to an opportunity for Caren Smith, a Woodlawn student in the MedTech program.

“Navigating complex pieces of information to pin down which devices are already developed and where there are additional opportunities to create something new was something that challenged me to think outside of the box,” she said. “But the instructors taught us that if we change one variable or one thought process and critically think about your goals, you’ll see how monumentally different the final product can turn out.”

Smith’s group designed three different crutch prototypes, striving to develop an improved tool that enabled individuals to navigate stairs with greater ease while using crutches.

“With the first crutch prototype, we added a spring that made going up the stairs easier but going down them was kind of scary because they weren’t as stable,” she explained. “On our second revised version, I leaned on one of my teammates who was great at 3D printing. She was able to print out a 3D visualization of one of the crutch components so that we could get a real sense of how it would work together with the design that we had. On the third try, we were able to add a clamp onto the crutch, making it adjustable when you’re going up and down the stairs, which alleviated the stability issue.”

The group’s ability to soak up problem-solving methodology using technology is what Conner believes is a core skill that will stick with students as they move on to future endeavors.

“A lot of the students realized they have good ideas and I think on the social side, they learned how to work with people very quickly and effectively share those ideas. I watched the students go from eight separate people on their phones in the same room, not communicating, to these collaborative beings taking large rolls of sketching paper and getting their ideas out there quickly,” Conner said.

Cooper hopes that the students are inspired to dive deeper into the expansive medical technology field, potentially expanding with different variations of the program.

“We’re hoping to engage earlier in students’ journeys in case they’re not taking the right courses when entering that pre-college decision-making phase so that we can assist in mentoring and informing students which pathways to travel if they want to pursue medical device production or another STEM field,” Cooper said.

Cooper and Conner hope the students realize they have great, valid ideas and feel equipped with tools to take those ideas and build operational designs to showcase them to the world.

“We’re striving to continue cultivating relationships with STEM teachers and faculty in the Birmingham metro area and across the state for them to use MedTech as a best practices model they could adopt,” Cooper stated. “That way, the next time we host this, we can reach out to a broader number of schools and get a larger group of students that might be interested and really expand the program by tapping into and strengthening deeper collaborations.”

As for the program’s first graduates, when asked why they would recommend the MedTech Device Program to future students, each had a unique perspective.

“It’s a big opportunity for students that want to get a hands-on feel or glimpse into the behind-the-scenes process of how to design devices or any type of medical tool,” Harper said. “And you get to expand your thinking while working with other new people that offer a diverse set of ideas. That’s the unique thing about this experience — just the environment overall.”

Smith noted that, unlike traditional lessons in school, the program wasn’t just the instructors talking to their students, instead it was a hands-on experience that was fun at the same time.

The initially hesitant Isaiah Williams-Scott said the program helped him say with surety, “I want to be an engineer. I want to create similar medical device technology as what we created through the program and look for problems in current devices to discover new methods to fix them. This program made me realize that I really want that to be a part of my future.”
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.