Vascular Invaders

Jodie Jenkinson, a Biomedical Communications professor at UTM, has a track record of success with the Instructional Technology Innovation Fund (ITIF) over the years. In a past round of the Fund, Jenkinson had collaborated to secure an ITIF grant with one of her former students on a project that resulted in an animation currently used to help teach students and residents at Toronto General Hospital, in conjunction with the Perioperative Interactive Education (PIE) group.

For Jenkinson, it was a great opportunity to take student initiative and develop it.

“A lot of what we do is tools of creation,” Jenkinson says. “A lot of funding is available for research, but it’s harder to get money for development. That’s what I appreciate about IITIF.” So in 2011, when another one of Jenkinson’s students had a master’s project idea worthy of development, she collaborated them get another ITIF grant.

Andrea Gauthier, a biomedical and scientific artist who creates visualizations for teaching, had a rough version of a game already in the works, as a way to help medical students with head and neck anatomy. She planned her research project to test how it affected learning. After the ITIF grant, however, Gauthier was able to expand her game—Vascular Invaders—into something that reflected all of her abilities as an artist and an educator.

The game acts as a study aid, so it’s not meant to introduce these anatomy concepts to students from scratch, but it is meant to help master them. Users of the game control a small craft inside a human body, where they must correctly navigate through arteries and veins in order to reach specific points, and save the patient. As you click through to your destination an interactive, 3-D map of the cardiovascular system is revealed—but you only have so many moves before you run out, so you need to know your way pretty well. The less moves required, the higher your score. It’s fairly intuitive.

But while the mechanics of the game are relatively simple, its features are not. Gauthier programmed it herself from scratch, and also created the artwork for everything that appears onscreen during the game. She went through 46 different versions, refining the design and programming at each step through personal input and things like usability studies.

The final result is a gorgeous platform, immersing users in a Fantastic Voyage-esque journey, while providing all of the necessary learning information in an easily digestible format. The game helped Gauthier win the Association of Medical Illustrator’s Award of Merit for Interactive Media in 2012.

As for the results of her research project, Gauthier says that students who used Vascular Invaders as a study tool were more motivated to study. Not only that, but the more they used it, the better they did on tests—meaning that their learning became more predictable.

“There are insights into the ways gaming can influence learning,” Gauthier says, which is a point of interest that this project helped solidify for her.

In the future, Gauthier says that she plans to open up the game to the U of T public as a resource for medical students, and there’s a potential to develop it as an app for iPad. There’s even the potential to re-author the game and expand it for further use, beyond just the throat, head and neck areas that are currently featured.