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At Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institute, girls use biomedical engineering to solve real-world problems

At Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institute, girls use biomedical engineering to solve real-world problems
At Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institute, girls use biomedical engineering to solve real-world problems

By Nora Wang '21

Dr. Jenny Halpern, an orthopedic oncologist at Vanderbilt, gathered her residents in preparation for an unusual Friday. Together, they packed up prosthetics, fake bones, and medical instruments for transport. Then, they carted everything into a room of middle and high school girls. “I had no idea what we were going to do,” rising 8th grade student Callie Pritts said. 

Thirty minutes later, Callie was drilling holes into bones. “It was a huge surprise,” she said. Like Callie, the other campers at Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institute hadn’t expected to use the medical tools themselves. As they fixed metal rods and plates in place, many of them decided that this was their favorite day of camp so far.

Established in 2012, Harpeth Hall’s two-week STEM Summer Institute (SSI) encourages girls to step into the shoes of STEM professionals. Through innovative classes, professional demonstrations, and hands-on engineering projects, girls from all over Middle Tennessee forge new friendships as they envision solutions to real-world problems. 

In past sessions, campers have designed and built structures that mitigate flooding in Middle Tennessee, devices that increase the efficiency of small-scale farmers, and hand-washing stations for people with limited access to water. This year, upper school math teacher and SSI program director Jennifer Webster wanted to move in a different direction. 

Since the program’s inception, SSI has partnered with Craig Duvall, a professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University, and principal investigator of the Duvall Advanced Therapeutics Laboratory. Dr. Duvall’s expert guidance and feedback have been central to SSI’s success despite the fact that the program never centered around his specialty. This fall, he got an email from Dr. Webster. “I have an idea. What if we do biomedical engineering this year?” 

“He wrote me back saying ‘yes’ with all exclamation points,” Dr. Webster remembers. On the first day of camp, the girls were presented with the year’s challenge: creating prototypes of devices that assist people with physical disabilities. To begin, they attended a series of lessons taught by Dr. Duvall and his team of graduate students. They received an introduction to orthopedic oncology, learned about the chemical composition of prosthetic and implant materials, and gained a better understanding about biomaterials. However, at SSI, learning is not confined to the classroom. 

After a short bus ride to the Vanderbilt Engineering and Science Building, the girls found themselves surrounded by microscopes, chemical hoods, and barrels of liquid nitrogen. In Dr. Duvall’s lab, they learned more about his research and even performed a short experiment, using chemicals to synthesize a gel. 

They then walked to the nearby prosthetics lab, which was divided into stations featuring the latest prototypes and testing devices. As a team of doctoral students led interactive demonstrations of force plates, electrodes that react to muscular impulses, and motion sensors, the campers asked for advice on their own designs. 

Despite being filled with cutting-edge technology, one stop on the tour felt familiar. The students noted similarities between the Vanderbilt MakerSpaces and Harpeth Hall’s two centers of design and innovation, the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab and the Design Den. In these spaces, which feature laser cutters, 3D printers, sewing machines, and power tools, the campers brought their own ideas to life. 

In teams of three to five students, the campers proposed ideas, drafted designs, and constructed prototypes. Sixth and 7th grade students constructed casts and braces for a variety of injuries, presenting adjustable and customizable designs. Eighth and 9th grade students worked on a variety of projects. Inspired by gold-medal-winning paralympic swimmer Anastasia Pagonis, one team designed headgear that could be fitted with a sensor, allowing blind swimmers to know when to turn. 

Harpeth Hall middle school science teacher and department chair Bekah Hassell emphasized the importance of empathy within engineering. In addition to their ability to come up with unique solutions, the campers at SSI have been “particularly good at thinking about the whole person, which is a strength in the field,” she said.

A team of high school students displayed exactly the kind of empathy that Ms. Hassell described by thinking of the people in their own lives. Inspired by grandparents and family friends who live with arthritis, the team decided to rethink something that most people don’t think twice about – the handle. Recognizing that handles are found on countless household items, the group hoped a redesign could provide a simple solution to people’s daily struggles.

“This handle is special because we’re attaching it vertically,” camper Zaria Bailey, a rising sophomore, explained. “With regular pots, you have to hold it like this, use your upper arms, and move your arms in a certain way,” she said, hoisting her elbows out to either side of her body. “When [the handle] is vertical, you can easily pick it up, pour it out, and put it down.” The group 3D printed their prototype, using silicone for comfort and implementing finger grips for maximum security. In tests, it was clear – the vertical handle could be used with much less effort. 

Whether they addressed a condition as common as arthritis or a population as small as blind competitive swimmers, the campers at SSI were driven by the desire to help others. “I think that’s probably what I’ve loved most about this project,” Harpeth Hall upper school math teacher Adam Colombo said. “It’s so human-centric…and it was from the beginning.”