Expanding the Impact of Santa Clara's Healthcare Innovation and Design Program

Expanding the Impact of Santa Clara’s Healthcare Innovation and Design Program

Through a partnership with an area high school, Santa Clara students and faculty now provide young people with mentorship and access to real-world inspired projects.

Through a partnership with an area high school, Santa Clara students and faculty now provide young people with mentorship and access to real-world inspired projects.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2021, timing was critical. To effectively treat patients and prevent the spread of the virus, public health organizations needed to know not just what was happening now, but what was going to happen.

Navid Shaghagi, a lecturer in mathematics and computer science was at the forefront of this effort. Using machine learning software he developed with students at Santa Clara University, Shaghaghi and his team took publicly available flu data to predict how COVID-19 might spread to different parts of the world.

“We did three-week, seven-week, and 14-week forecasts,” Shaghaghi says. “That way, pharmaceutical companies could be right on target with their weekly production of tests and drugs.”

The project was a huge success. The predictions were shared with different organizations around the world, including Cepheid, a Sunnvyale-based molecular diagnostics company that manufactures COVID test kits and regularly partners with Santa’s healthcare innovation and design program. Clara. The students also published several articles about their findings and shared their tool with top medical institutions like Johns Hopkins University so that predictions could get to those who needed them even faster.

While Shaghaghi and his team of Santa Clara students spearheaded the project, they didn’t do it alone. In fact, they got help from an unexpected source: Saint Francis High School in Mountain View.

Inspired by an idea of Prashant Asuridirector of SCU’s healthcare innovation and design program, a group of seven Saint Francis students received coding training from Santa Clara students George Kouretas ’22, Andrés Calle ’21and Michael Castillo ’24. The high school students then spent four weeks troubleshooting the software in the final phase of the project, using machine learning and programming skills to debug and synthesize the code. At the end of the five weeks, the high school students presented their findings to the Santa Clara team.

Asuri’s goal for the collaboration was not just to help complete the project, but to expand the impact of the healthcare innovation and design program. Taking the model it uses to connect Silicon Valley companies and Santa Clara students, it could offer high school students the same hands-on opportunities on relevant projects while giving Santa Clara students experience in the teaching and leadership.

“I always say to young people, ‘You have to look at the bigger issues,'” Asuri says. “Don’t just worry about the specific discipline you should study at university. Instead, attach yourself to a big challenge you’d like to solve, such as energy, health, or durability.

With the initial success of the partnership with Saint Francis, Asuri decided to continue the collaboration. But rather than join in the extension of this unique project, it broadened the scope of the partnership and the range of student participation through new experiential learning opportunities.

With the help of Julia Scottdirector of the Brain and Memory Care Lab in Santa Clara, and Shraddha Chaplot, chief innovation officer at Saint Francis, high school students designed a virtual reality program focused on improving mental health.

In the VR game engine, students created their own virtual environment that enhances relaxation. They also built sensors that detect heart rate, which is then used as an interactive part of the game. In the final design, the user enters a peaceful virtual cave with soothing, colorful crystals and glowworms hanging from the top to reproduce the soothing effects of bioluminescence.

A computer screen image of a VR simulation created by Saint Francis students

“Because they started from scratch, they created a visual experience tailored specifically to their age range,” says Scott. “We offered logistical, training and basic knowledge support, but what they created was theirs – and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Chaplot says the experience helped answer the age-old question for young people, “When am I going to use this?” Although this question can be difficult to answer in a traditional classroom environment, thanks to the VR project, his students were able to easily see how the principles of geometry and algebra could be creatively applied to the visual arts. They also learned specialized skills such as electrical engineering and computer programming.

“These opportunities help them see why they’re learning what they’re learning,” says Chaplot.

Perhaps most impactful, since the work was done under a voluntary program, there were no grades or competitions. Students were able to experiment without fear of failure or expectations, which can be rare in a competitive high school environment.

“I want kids to explore and try new things without fear of failure,” says Chaplot. “Through these types of projects, if our students find they have an affinity for VR or healthcare, that’s amazing, but if they don’t, that’s okay too. It’s all part of the process, they learn about themselves, find their strengths and discover their passions in order to have a positive impact on the world.

Improve their game

Saint Francis students continued the VR project this fall. With additional support from Em Dang of the Santa Clara Imaginarium, a new group of students have created their own version of the experience that takes the user through calming, tense environments to develop emotional awareness and heart rate.

“They created a more complex world and interactions, literally upping their game,” says Scott.

The project will continue this month with a series of events. Santa Clara Students Ginger Freeman ’23 (psychology) and Soren Madsen ’21, MS ’24 (computing and engineering) will return to Saint François to oversee testing and provide feedback. On Wednesday, December 14, Saint Francis will host “An Evening in Virtual Reality”, where students will present the work they have done on the project.

I want children to explore and try new things without fear of failure. Through these types of projects, if our students find they have an affinity for virtual reality or healthcare, that’s amazing, but if they don’t, that’s okay too. It’s all part of the process.

Shraddha Chaplot, Head of Innovation at Saint Francis High School

Saint Francis also recently launched a third project, a design challenge inspired by dementia care innovation supported by Maude’s Ventures in the lab. Four teams of students developed prototypes to address a key dementia care need over a 10-week period. They presented their ideas to a live audience and a jury on November 30. Santa Clara teacher Patti Simone (Psychology), Asuri, and McKenzie Himes ’23 (Neuroscience) provided constructive feedback on their designs to prepare them for the next phase of the project.

Based on the success of the Saint Francis collaboration, Scott and Asuri hope to expand the program even further, especially with schools that don’t traditionally have the resources of a private school.

According to Scott, the biggest obstacle to scaling up the program is not the hardware, but training teachers to oversee the projects. She is looking for opportunities that would fund this type of teacher training at other high schools to create sustainable programs in XR innovation.

“We are working on finding other high school partners for additional pilot sites,” says Scott. “Every school has different needs and wants different results. We therefore want to create a framework that can be adapted to multiple educational contexts including public schools, other types of private schools and after-school or community programs.

While the initiative has opened up many new opportunities for Saint Francis students, Scott says the partnership has been equally valuable for Santa Clara. By sharing their expertise and passions, Santa Clara students have strengthened their project leadership skills and broadened their understanding of the subject.

“These projects cooperatively strengthen both student bodies,” says Scott. “I hope we can establish similar partnerships with other high schools to expand learning opportunities and continue to push the boundaries of engineering, entrepreneurship, and design thinking.”

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