Virtual tutors help train nursing students for trauma care

April 09, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students in Penn State’s College of Nursing typically work on lifelike manikins and in clinical settings to learn how to deliver professional nursing care to patients. But with Penn State shifting to a remote learning environment for the remainder of the spring semester, some students are now using a web-based tutor to learn how to provide trauma care through a series of virtual simulations.

The tutor — called the Virtual Intelligent Tutor for the Andragogy of Military Medicine INtegrated Skills, or VITAMMINS — is an intelligent tutoring system designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of medical training. It was created by researchers in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, College of Nursing, and Charles River Analytics, and its rollout is just one example of how the College of Nursing is adapting to provide simulation and clinical experiences in a virtual environment.

“At first glance, the tutor appears to be just a series of webpages or slides in an online module,” explained Frank Ritter, professor of IST and principal investigator on the VITAMMINS project. “But by including questions based on video demonstrations, detailed photos, and real-world scenarios, students are applying their knowledge and understanding the work of trauma nurses, even if that’s not their ultimate career goal.”

Originally designed for military nursing trauma training, the tutor helped to bridge the gap between traditional lecture-based education and hands-on experiences that are difficult to replicate virtually, such as trauma nursing training.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic forced many facilities to cancel their student clinical experiences, the research team expedited the release of the nursing tutor, which was already in development. Now, it has been adapted to the College of Nursing’s senior-level advanced medical-surgical course for clinical instruction.

“The tutor is valuable because it provides our students with clinically relevant exposure to concepts that they have limited exposure to in the actual clinical setting,” said Chris Garrison, director of simulation in the College of Nursing and a co-investigator on the VITAMMINS project. “We plan to use the tutor as part of a research study with nursing students next academic year and are exploring how it might be further incorporated into our curriculum to support trauma care learning objectives.”

In the scenarios, students learn to prioritize and apply medical assessments and interventions to a variety of trauma cases using the (C)ABCDE approach, which calls for the analysis of the patient’s catastrophic hemorrhage, airway, breathing, circulation, disability, and exposure to address life-threatening problems before providing additional care. The scenarios are demonstrated through a variety of media that engage the students with what they’d find in a clinical setting.

“The foundation of our work has been focused on understanding how declarative knowledge — knowledge about facts and things — turns into procedural knowledge — knowledge about putting information into action,” said Ritter. “We wanted to turn this theory into something that could be deployed into real-world scenarios, particularly those that are hard to replicate until they actually happen.”

VITAMMINS builds on Ritter and Garrison’s past research with each other and Charles River Analytics, which included working with the Marine Corps to build a combat life-saving tutor and a software manikin that provided realistic responses to care. Then, with support from the Air Force Research Lab, the tutor was adapted to focus on nursing in a noncombat setting.

Added Ritter, “Students are getting the same information as they would on campus, but rather than reading it in a textbook, they’re applying what they know to a series of scenarios and building skills that advances them toward a professional certification and, ultimately, will translate to their career.”

The group’s work was supported by the Defense Health Program through Charles River Analytics, the Air Force Research Lab, and the Office of Naval Research.

Other collaborators on the project include College of Nursing undergraduate students Alexis Fenstermacher and Nicholas Phillips; College of IST doctoral student Jake Oury; James Niehaus, senior scientist at Charles River Analytics; and Peter Weyhrauch, vice president, Human Effectiveness Division at Charles River Analytics.

Last Updated April 17, 2020