Science with a Heart
A computer-assisted mechanical model can be manipulated to show how all the elements coordinate
If Terrence Sweeney, Ph.D., professor of biology, had lived in Oz, the Tin Man would not have had to go in search of the Wizard for a heart. Rather, Dorothy’s sentimental companion could have asked Dr. Sweeney to build one for him. Not a real heart mind you, but a convincing facsimile. Dr. Sweeney, with assistance from University of Scranton students, has developed a mechanical model that simulates the functions of the human cardiovascular system. Whereas the Tin Man’s desire for a heart was emotional, Dr. Sweeney’s intentions in building his model were pedagogical. Most of us don’t think twice about how the cardiovascular system functions. In reality, the cardiovascular system is a mechanically sophisticated system and, for students of physiology, learning the mechanical details can be daunting. For this reason, Dr. Sweeney sought to develop a simulation that can mimic the complex interactions among the pressure, volume and flow of blood as it moves through the heart, arteries and veins.
As Dr. Sweeney explained to Erin Nessly, a reporter for The Scranton Times-Tribune, “Physical and mechanical concepts of how the cardiovascular systems works are complex. I came up with the idea of a computer-assisted mechanical model ... you can manipulate to show how all the elements coordinate.
In recognition of his invention, Dr. Sweeney has been selected as the 2012 recipient of the ADInstruments Macknight Progressive Educator Award. This prestigious award is granted by the American Physiological Society (APS) Education Committee. The committee was extremely impressed with Dr. Sweeney’s application, entitled “Design, development and implementation of a mechanical model of the cardiovascular system for pedagogical use.”
As the 2012 ADInstruments Macknight Progressive Educator recipient, Dr. Sweeney will receive:
- a Power Lab System, valued at $5,000 to $6,000
- a $1,500 travel award to attend the 2012 Experimental Biology Meeting, scheduled for April 21-25, 2012, in San Diego, Calif.
At the Experimental Biology Meeting, Dr. Sweeney was honored during the APS Business Meeting on April 24.
In keeping with his passion for engaging students in research, Dr. Sweeney developed his cardiovascular (CV) model with substantial assistance from University students, in particular John W. Miller ’08 and Timothy M. Smilnak ’10. Miller contributed to the design of the model as part of his honors thesis, “Developing a Mechanical Model of the Cardiovascular System.” For his honors thesis, “Teaching Important Principles of Cardiovascular Physiology through Interaction with a Mechanical Model of the Cardiovascular System,” Smilnak contributed to the development of a complete set of lab protocols for use in the Biology 245L General Physiology Lab and suggested how the CV model could be used in advanced physiology courses.
A current student, Shannon Lavelle ’12, has submitted a proposal to the American Physiological Society to support the development of curricular models of how the CV model could be used in local high schools.
One of the characteristics of American higher education is that faculty frequently compartmentalize their teaching, research and community outreach activities. Dr. Sweeney’s work on the CV model, through his inclusion of students in the design of the model and recognizing its application for public science education, is a good example of how one can effectively combine high-quality teaching with applied research that has beneficial results for the community at large.
Miller and Smilnak’s honors theses can be viewed online through the Weinberg Memorial Library at: http://digitalservices.scranton.edu and enter Smilnak in the search box.
 “Scranton professor’s invention helps students get to the heart of cardiovascular lessons.” Scranton Times-Tribune. Feb. 20, 2012. Online. http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/scranton-professor-invention-helps-students-get-to-heart-of-cardiovascular-lessons-1.1274114#ixzz1oFqaLVVK.