Cardiovascular disease is a global health concern affects tens of millions of people around the world each year. For seventh graders in Adel Collins’ Life Science class, it became the focal point for an in-depth study of organ systems, an exploration of how lifestyle choices affect long-term health, and an investigation into how biomedical engineering can make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Life Science teacher Adel Collins chose to focus on cardiovascular disease because it offered the opportunity to not only learn how a critical organ system functions, but to examine risk factors and their long-term implications. “At first, students think they’re just learning about the circulatory system,” says Adel, “but when we introduce the risk factors and patient profiles, the students start to see how cardiovascular disease affects us, our families, and millions of people around the world.”
Understanding the Organ System
The cardiovascular system includes the heart and blood vessels, and in a healthy body, these organs work in concert to circulate and transport essential nutrients. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) can cause a ripple effect of symptoms throughout the body: chest pain, shortness of breath, pain or numbness in the arms or legs.
Students began their explorations by first learning about the function of the cardiovascular system. The study was enriched by the opportunity to dissect a pig heart, chosen because it is similar in size, structure, and function to the human heart. The dissection was a new addition to the unit this year, and it provided students with a better understanding of how the organ functions. “It’s one thing to talk about what valves and chambers look like,” says Adel, “but it’s another thing to cut a heart open and hold it in your hands.”
Cause and Effect
At first glance, cardiovascular disease might appear to be an issue that would be difficult for twelve and thirteen year old students to identify with, but the next phase of the project focused on the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, many of which have their foundation in the lifestyle habits and choices that these students are already making every day.
Using data from the World Health Organization, students studied the main risk factors for CVD—smoking, physical inactivity, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure—and their prevalence in different parts of the world. Class discussions examined the difference between modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors, driving home the idea that in many cases this is a preventable disease. “I want students to understand that they have control over their health,” says Adel, “by exercising, eating well, and taking care of themselves.”
Students also heard from two doctors on the front lines of treating patients with CVD. Dr. Michele Goh, parent of Isabelle Aish ’19, and Dr. Karen DeFazio, parent of Sofia Mongillo ’19, visited the seventh graders to share anonymous patient profiles that ranged from drug-induced cardiac arrest to an individual who was able to manage high cholesterol with drug therapy. Dr. Goh and Dr. DeFazio discussed the choices that each patient could have made to decrease their risk and the treatment options available to them. Their perspectives as practitioners gave the students food for thought.
Engineering Solutions to Save a Life
Cardiovascular disease leads to a condition called atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque on artery walls. It becomes harder for blood to flow through the narrowed passages, creating the potential for heart attack or stroke.
The final stage of the project, called “No Ordinary Coronary,” challenged students to consider cardiovascular disease from the perspective of a biomedical engineer by designing and building a device to treat a blocked artery. In small groups, students researched a specific risk factor, and using statistics about gender, age, and geography, each group developed a fictional patient profile complete with a family health background. Helping this fictional patient became their real challenge.
In their groups, students designed, tested, and re-designed a balloon catheter that could open a blocked artery—in this case, a plastic tube packed with frosting to simulate arterial plaque. Students chose from a range of low-tech supplies to build their design, including pipe cleaners, wires, balloons, paper clips, tape, straws and rubber bands. Each item had a specific cost, and students had to stay within a set budget for their design. Students tested their designs on the frosting-blocked artery and measured the change in rate of water flow. Based on their results, students redesigned their devices to achieve improved results.
Adel pointed out to her students that while they were conducting the design and test process twice, a real biomedical engineer might repeat the cycle hundreds of times. It was a real-world lesson in persistence. “The mindset is for a lot of students is that if the final project isn’t perfect, it’s a failure. But it’s not about pass or fail,” says Adel. “It’s about process, documentation, and improvement.”