A student-designed solution is improving the physical therapy experience for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta patients.

The Mount Vernon School’s Virtual Reality (VR) team was among 60 presenters at the annual Virtual Medicine (vMed) Conference in Los Angeles last week. Presenting details on a VR experience for pediatric patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the VR team shared design and development considerations that have resulted in documented patient improvement and success over the last five years.

Established in 2018, The Island was designed and developed by Mount Vernon Upper School students, for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, to be used as both a distraction from pain and a way to encourage patients to use their bodies during physical therapy sessions. The first iteration of The Island was presented to Children’s in January 2020. The experience included hearing seagulls squawking and waves crashing, along with the ability to interact with beach balls, treasure chests, and ‘pick up’ buckets on the ground. A beach carnival provided users with additional opportunities to move and interact with carnival games. Over the last 5 years, patient response and data collected by physical therapists using the program have resulted in ongoing optimizations of The Island by Mount Vernon students.

Jason Amos, Manager, Day Rehabilitation at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, shared insights on how the program’s effectiveness is being measured. “For patients with Acquired Brain Injury and Spinal Cord Injury, the mean pre-program “joy” scale rating was 3 and the post-program “joy” scale rating was a 4, all demonstrating improvements. Patients successfully achieved their therapeutic goals using VR (upper extremity movement, balance, lower extremity movement, vision, executive functioning) and demonstrated increased participation, subjectively.”

On March 29, 2023, seven VR students: Herris Fentress, Christian Foster, Callum Graham, Burak Inel, Madison Kaul, Cade Reinking, Sydney Smith along with Director of Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab Marie Graham, and Assistant Director of Immersive Technology, Nikolai Ibanez presented to the sold-out crowd of physicians and medical professionals at vMed23. “The work being done by our VR team is an example of how student capacity can grow exponentially when real-world applications are provided. Not only do students see an authentic purpose to their work, but they are also invested and engaged in making a positive impact,” said Kristy Lundstrom, The Mount Vernon School’s Head of School.

Working on the Mount Vernon/Children’s program has provided invaluable experience for all students involved. The original student team responsible for developing the first Island experience included Justin Blumencranz, Mount Vernon Class of 2021. Justin is currently at Stanford University and co-authoring the revised Python course reader for Code In Place, Stanford’s online international coding course. Other team members have gone on to Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Belmont University. In addition to the CHOA program, the current VR team is also designing and conducting research about how VR might increase the quality of life for hospice patients and is bringing virtual reality to nursing home residents to increase joy.