At the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), Dr. Barry Pointon teaches nuclear medicine technology to students who hope one day to work in hospitals and clinics. As technologists, they’ll produce the images that doctors use to diagnose problems like heart disease, cancers, bone fractures, and rheumatoid arthritis.
You can’t overstate the importance of Dr. Pointon’s job. Well-trained students produce better images, which lead to more accurate medical diagnoses, which lead to better health outcomes for people all over Canada. If you think nuclear medicine sounds complicated, it is. “Students have to learn things like projection imaging, which involves line integrals, radon transforms, and objects called sinograms,” says Dr. Pointon. “Then they have to learn about data filtering and spatial frequency domains. That involves Fourier transforms, convolution integrals, and an understanding of power spectra. Then, even further, they have to understand tomographic reconstruction, which gives the final images that the doctors look at.”
Did that make sense to you? If so, my guess is you’ve had a few semesters of calculus. Many of Dr. Pointon’s students have not.
As a public post-secondary institution with over 48,000 students enrolled into 350 programs annually, BCIT enrolls students with a solid understanding of algebra. How they learn complicated relationships among parameters in nuclear medicine and imaging outcomes—that’s up to Dr. Pointon.
“My job is to give them an intuition of how the math works,” he says. “I used to try to do that with an overhead projector, an acetate roll, and colored pens. I would try to draw an image on the overhead projector, and I would try show how things change as you varied the parameters.” “I can tell you it was highly unsuccessful.” Then several years ago, Dr. Pointon read a book about using PTC Mathcad to teach physics. Intrigued, he began developing interactive tutorials in the software that he could use in the classroom. The tutorials, composed on PTC Mathcad worksheets, laid out the complex calculations behind the images.
One of the benefits of PTC Mathcad is that it displays the math in the same way it would appear in a textbook, while other calculation software might introduce functions or words that confuse students.
Best of all, PTC Mathcad can combine equations and images on the same worksheet. So, Dr. Pointon can include simple geometry in a tutorial/worksheet. He asks students to predict what changing a parameter will do to the geometry, and then, on the fly, he changes that parameter. PTC Mathcad automatically regenerates the geometry to reflect the new value. The images become more and more sophisticated as students progress through the course, until they’re working with a human-like model. Or more correctly, a “digital anthropomorphic phantom.”
So, the images students see in PTC Mathcad actually look like the real images they’ll encounter clinically. “But with PTC Mathcad, we can play with all the parameters and see how the parameters of the imaging and all the aspects of the field come into play in the final image.”
Dr. Pointon says his approach works faster than the old acetate and overhead project method—and better. “Now you can see the lights go on in their heads as they begin to understand the relationships without actually having to calculate Fourier transforms on a piece of paper. They become very able to predict what the results will be if I change parameters. In the past it took students twice as long to understand these same concepts.” Nuclear medicine imaging is a growing field that’s becoming more sophisticated every year. With PTC Mathcad, students are mastering the complicated concepts, relationships, and theories behind the machines and the medicine. Dr. Pointon is integrating the latest ideas into the classroom more easily.