Story by Lisa Braun
Experienced instructors, state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories, and degree pathway programs are some of the many features that give the Medical Education and Training Campus (METC) at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, an edge in producing highly trained, military allied health professionals.
Introducing innovative technology into the training curriculum provides an additional force multiplier.
Thanks to the men and women who volunteer with the Alamo Spark, an innovation working group with the 59 Training Group on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, technology progression in the schoolhouse is becoming a reality.
The team, made up of mostly METC instructors, operates four main lines of effort to progress curriculum and instructional delivery that will allow METC students and other trainees to gain exposure to a variety of technological aids that augment the learning environment. These four lines of effort are virtual/augmented reality, 3D printing, video/podcast production, and machine learning/artificial intelligence.
“We are a group of volunteers with a passion for innovation and technology that emphasizes a ‘grassroots’ approach to solving problems around the TRG,” stated Air Force Master Sgt. Brian Hermes, an instructor in the METC Radiologic Technologist program and the Alamo Spark lead.
According to Hermes, there are currently 47 Spark Cells around the Air Force. Hermes’ group chartered their own team on Fort Sam Houston in order to work with students, staff, and other Department of Defense agencies to accelerate innovative changes.
Although the total size of the team is always increasing, they currently have about 20 individuals from three military branches as well as civilian Department of Defense employees that contribute to the mission.
“Each of our lines of effort have produced some incredible things that directly affect METC, training, and the morale and welfare of airmen, soldiers and sailors,” stated Hermes.
Working closely with the Air Force Medical Modeling and Simulation Test team, Alamo Spark team member Air Force Staff Sgt. Austin Jur, an instructor in the METC Biomedical Equipment Technician program, has been engaging with a small technology business that develops virtual medical equipment. Using virtual reality (VR) technology allows students to train with equipment they normally wouldn’t see at METC, either due to scarcity, implicit dangers, or expense to maintain. Additionally, a project is underway to apply gaming elements to the training curriculum utilizing the VR environment to help students understand complex material easier, quicker, and more efficiently.
According to Hermes, the Alamo Spark team was asked by the Air Force Surgeon General to manufacture an ear for combat acupuncture training.
Air Force Tech. Sergeants. Timothy Bilbrey and Malarie Eagle, instructors in the METC BMET program, and leads for the 3D printing line of effort, designed the ear and worked with the JBSA-Randolph dental laboratory to make it more lifelike. The product was successfully developed and will be shared across all Air Force medical treatment facilities. The file will also be shared with Spark labs across the Air Force, and potentially other services, so organizations can print the ear on their own. The cost savings is another benefit; the simulated ear can be purchased on Amazon for anywhere from $25 and up, whereas Alamo Spark can print it for 46 cents.
This line of effort serves to accelerate distance and blended learning through multimedia. Leading the way is Air Force Tech. Sgt. Justin Thorpe, another BMET program instructor at METC. Thorpe worked with some METC programs to create video lectures for students placed on a 14-day restriction of movement following their return from holiday leave to mitigate COVID risk. This method of instruction delivery enabled training to continue with zero delay and, in doing so, saved over $100,000.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML)
BMET program instructor, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Hauversburk, is behind the effort to deliver Robotic Process Automation by “training” computers to perform tasks autonomously. These robots can grab information from online, place them in spreadsheets, format information, send emails, and perform thousands of other tasks in seconds.
This administrative innovation promises to free up time for instructors and mitigates human error that occurs when dealing with a plethora of information. Some DOD and federal agencies are implementing RPA at an entry-level capacity.
These technologies and others like it will enhance the training students receive at METC and elsewhere by supplementing the lectures and providing realistic alternatives to actual experiences.
An example of technology currently being used at METC is the anatomage table, a 3D anatomy visualization system. The anatomage table enables students to observe and study actual muscle, bones and organs in a digital setting without having to visit a cadaver lab. Virtual dissection can be performed and students can isolate the different systems and organs of the human anatomy. This provides the students a more accurate perspective of the location and size of human anatomy than being obtained from computer models or textbooks.
Many of METC’s training programs require students to study anatomy. According to Hermes, two more anatomage tables are on the way in addition to one already in use by the Radiological Technologist program, and another that was placed in the Air Force student dormitory. The goal, he said, is to place one inside each of the medical instructional facilities (MIF) so METC students in different programs can use them.
The team is also looking to empower METC students to become part of the innovation process by implementing a program that relies on their participation. The program, called Airman Accelerators, will allow students the opportunity to volunteer with the Alamo Spark cell and contribute valuable feedback about how technology could improve their training experience. Additionally, students who are interested in any of the lines of effort can receive training in those or other projects that interest them.
“We’re looking for students to come in with talent and a fresh perspective on things to tell us what we’re doing wrong and to help us figure out how to do it right,” explained Jur. “If training is lagging in technology, we want them to tell us so we can start moving it in the right direction to bring us into the future, so we’re depending on them to do that.”
The Alamo Sparks team is planning to introduce more technology that not only helps students with their training during class time, but to also provide them with the tools to access training material outside of training.
“We created a series of 360-degree videos of all the laboratory practices that can be accessed in the dorm with use of a computer, smartphone or a VR headset,” Hermes stated. “Students would literally be in their dorm room looking around the lab again, reviewing the procedures they learned that day to enhance their understanding, or prepare for the next lab assignment in advance.”
The use of technology such as VR in the training environment is a concept that Air Force Airman Lisa Sylvestri, a student in the METC Radiologic Technologist program, feels would be well received by her and her fellow trainees.
“I think it would be great because I know that a lot of people, especially in our generation, are very hands on,” she said, adding that it’s hard to practice labs when reading what to do from a book. “Hands on would just be better, especially for the labs.”