Thirteen local high school students recently participated in the third annual Bio-Med Tech-Girls at the University of Virginia, a weeklong program that offers hands-on exposure to biomedical engineering for teenage girls.

The program was started three years ago by Kim Wilkens, a teacher at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, and David Chen, a professor in UVa’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“I’m trying to get more girls interested in computer science and technology and engineering. [There are] programs for elementary and middle school students, but high school is so hard to reach because they have lives and are busy,” said Wilkens. “I think it’s been really successful in that it’s broadening [the girls’] horizons and they’re seeing all sorts of different aspects of engineering.”

Helping to facilitate the program were Christina Stiebris and Kate Donovan, both UVa undergraduates who worked in Chen’s BME Design Research Lab.

The program consisted of daily lectures from professionals with biomedical engineering backgrounds, tours of the university’s BME labs and a multi-stage design challenge. Lecturers included a pediatrician who has done extensive international work, an engineer who develops adaptive sports technologies for those with physical disabilities and an occupational therapist.

I’ve always had a battle between medicine and engineering, so this is a great combination of the two to get to explore.

Arghya Shetty

Midway through the week, the girls were presented with a fictional case study about a boy named Tommy with cerebral palsy. They spent the rest of the week assessing his and his family’s needs, then designing and prototyping a device to help meet those needs.

“We’re not defining a problem for them and saying, ‘make a widget for this,’” Chen said. “We walk them through elements of this case and now it’s like, identify need statements — areas you think this patient or this patient’s family has some real elements that can be improved.”

The students individually created need statements, and then the full group voted on which needs seemed most significant. What they designed was entirely up to them, though Chen said it had to be rooted in the context of the case study and be something a real patient or family actually would use.

“[The speakers] have been talking about how they go and help people, they talk with patients or families and find out what works best for them, and that just sounds like something I’d really like to do,” said Katie Elliott, a student at Grace Christian School.

Several of the girls said the program made them realize they could combine their interests in medicine and engineering.

“I’ve always loved medicine and thought it would be awesome to be a doctor, but my uncle’s an engineer and he showed me all of this cool stuff and I really connected with it,” said Ellie Powell, a student at St. Anne’s-Belfield. “This is a great kind of balance that you can do everything with.”

“I’ve always had a battle between medicine and engineering, so this is a great combination of the two to get to explore,” agreed Arghya Shetty, a student at Albemarle High School.

Others were most inspired by the pediatrician, Dr. Rebecca Scharf, and the lab tours, which included peeks at state-of-the-art medical technology.

“[Dr. Scharf] talked about traveling to Zambia and treating patients with severe illnesses, and I thought it was really cool how she went outside of the U.S. to do that,” said Amanda Histand, a student at the Miller School of Albemarle.

“One of the labs we visited today was my favorite part. We saw rats and their muscles were being rehabilitated, and that was really cool,” said Margaux Hapgood, a student at Albemarle High.

As the girls created need statements based on the case study, they focused on activities they were told their fictional patient enjoyed. Suggestions included a device to help him move around when performing on stage, and a way to retrieve balls he threw while playing sports.

Before starting the design challenge, Wilkens tasked the students with an “empathy assignment” in which they had to demobilize one of their body parts and write about the experience on an online blog.

“That’s really getting into the patient’s shoes, as it were, to experience that,” Wilkens said.