Two flights of stairs separate the computer science and nursing departments in the Main Building on the College of Saint Benedict campus. That wasn’t necessarily by design, but it continues to come in handy for the Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s University students who want to pursue a career in either field and get the added benefit of interdisciplinary and real-world learning.
Three years ago, the departments first collaborated on Maestro, a bar-code scanning system that computer science students designed to replicate what nurses use to administer medication in hospitals. That led to a project during the 2020-21 academic year when nine students (six from nursing and three from computer science) built a simulation platform that allowed users of the Schoenecker Nursing Education Suite to virtually choose their way through videos related to various patient scenarios. The following summer, two computer science students upgraded and extended the program to allow faculty and students to upload their own scenarios to further create a robust library of case studies.
This past summer, they were at it again. Under the direction of Peter Ohmann, an assistant professor of computer science, and with input from Jodi Berndt, associate professor of nursing, two of his students upgraded Maestro to match changes in clinical practice during the past two years. For instance, the system now allows for an automated process to calculate insulin injections. The upgrade also made the overall system faster and more user-friendly.
“Our students are grasping what it takes to create and use cutting-edge technology, and I wouldn’t say there are a lot of programs doing that,” said Berndt, who graduated from CSB in 1998 and – after clinical experience at St. Cloud Hospital – went on to earn a Master of Nursing Education degree in 2010 and her Ph.D. 10 years ago. “This is not something people think of when you say ‘interdisciplinary.’ This is a unique collaboration because they are not both health-related fields. But for the computer science students, we were their customer and they were doing the coding and development just like they would with a real client. And for the nursing students, they learned what it takes to work with a developer on this technology and that’s part of the nursing process, too. It’s been advantageous all the way around.”
Big benefit for nursing students
Perhaps the biggest benefit is for the nurses CSB and SJU turn out. That’s soon to include Anne Koslowski, a senior from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, who also is the lead teaching assistant in the nursing department. She thinks Maestro gives her an advantage over her peers at other schools.
“It’s similar to the medication scanning process we use during clinical rotations at the hospital,” she said. “It offers us the invaluable opportunity to refine our skills in a controlled lab setting before transitioning to the environment at St. Cloud Hospital. Our experience there includes early immersion into medication administration; we start practicing it almost immediately. The extended exposure sets us ahead of students from other nursing programs. Maestro equips us to administer medications independently at an earlier stage in our education.”
She completed an internship at Children’s Minnesota, one of the largest free-standing pediatric health systems in the United States. She said she felt at ease with the medication administration program there – which was different from the one at St. Cloud Hospital.
“I had a firm grasp of each step due to using Maestro, which led me to anticipate how the program at Children’s worked,” Koslowski said. “By knowing this ahead of time, my preceptor trusted me with the responsibility of managing the entire process independently. As a result, I was able to administer medications on my own and with greater efficiency. That really boosted my self-confidence.”
Abby Braun ’21 works as an RN in the urogynecology clinic at Allina Health in St. Paul, and is pursuing her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree as a family nurse practitioner at CSB – with expectation to graduate in 2025. She worked on developing the virtual simulation platform as a senior and said that experience has been useful.
“It exposed me to the behind-the-scenes development of a simulation and provided insight into the careful planning, research and collaboration required by nursing faculty to create successful simulations,” Braun said. “As someone with an interest in pursuing a career in nursing education, it was an exceptional opportunity to practice and gain experience. Nursing requires excellent communication skills with members of a team from various professions. Working closely with the computer science students prepared me to work with others who have different perspectives.”
She added that nurses use a variety of technologies daily.
“From IV pumps to ventilators to cardiac monitoring systems, nurses are working with technology constantly,” Braun said. “Because of my experience with Maestro and in creating the simulation platform, I felt that I was able to quickly learn and adapt to all of the new technology surrounding me when I graduated and began working in the hospital.
“I had significant internal motivation when I was given the opportunity to collaborate at Saint Ben’s. We had a great deal of freedom to be creative and practice working without close supervision. That’s one reason I felt comfortable transitioning to independent practice in the workplace. It helped me feel confident in my critical thinking and clinical decision making prior to my first position as a registered nurse.”
Computer science students clamor for opportunity
As for the computer science students, they also found the interaction unique and exciting. There were 15 applicants for two positions to originally create Maestro, and interest in this past summer’s work (not to mention future projects) is strong. Plus, Maestro’s original creators, Lindsey Hoeschen and Andrew Rothstein, recently got bylines along with Berndt, Ohmann and Imad Rahal, chair of the computer science department, with an article published in Nursing Education Perspectives. Hoeschen, who graduated in 2021, has gone on to become a software engineer with Eden Prairie-based Optum. And Rothstein, who also graduated in 2021, is now a software developer with St. Cloud-based riteSOFT.
Jack Bartell, a senior math and computer science major from Foley, Minnesota, was one of the collaborators this year.
“I was challenged in having to think how a nursing student would see the program and implement solutions that were understandable only through what was on the screen,” said Bartell, who teamed with Will Magarian, a junior computer science major from Sartell, Minnesota, to essentially work a paid internship. “Most of the changes that we made were for convenience. The original version of Maestro was incredibly advanced, but also had some downsides that both the nursing students and faculty had to deal with. This helps me professionally because I can show something tangible that I’ve worked on instead of only having my skills to rely on. And there were multiple skills I learned from the experience working in a real-world environment.”
Magarian said his summer experience was one of the best of his life. It was a challenge to pick up where past workers on the project left off but, by the end of the summer, he felt like he and Bartell were cruising.
“This project exposed me to more sides of the software engineering process, including how interactions between the customer and I would play out,” he said. “I was able to talk to and get to know Jodi. We met weekly to figure out what needed to get done and Jack and I divided the work between us. We ended up adding a lot more features to the front-end and back-end of Maestro. I mostly worked on the front-end side of the project and was able to make a more uniform look to the system.”
Magarian said those weekly meetings were experience he never would gain in a classroom.
“At this point in my education, most students have not had the chance to work for a customer,” he said. “I think our interactions taught me a lot and will be one of the main reasons I’ll have a leg up compared to the other students entering the workforce.”
Berndt estimates the schools save about $20,000 annually with Maestro compared to the purchase of professional software. And, even if that was used, it wouldn’t be tailored to the specific needs of students at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. Ditto for the simulation platform, which she said adds several thousands more each year to the savings.
She and Ohmann want to continue their departments’ collaboration.
“I think there’s a general assumption now that we’re going to be working together just about every summer on something,” Ohmann said. “We’ve developed a strong relationship between the departments and that’s what interdisciplinary collaboration is all about.”