Education in Engineering: The Student Who Built a Surgical Robot Arm

Education is vital for inspiring the engineers of tomorrow. In this special episode of the podcast we ask: are we encouraging enough young people to go into engineering to meet the demand for innovation? We speak to Jordan Cox from PTC’s Education segment about the importance of inspiring the next generation to study STEM subjects, and how the company is supporting academia in creating the engineers of the future.

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As education facilities break up for summer, it’s time for educators to recuperate and re-plan for the new academic year. The opportunity to learn and grow through education is an incredible part of your life. And perhaps one that lasts a lifetime with constant knowledge building and the want to learn. Here at PTC, we realize how important the educational journey is, and that today’s students will be the engineers of tomorrow. It’s important to us, and to future employees, that they’re equipped with the knowledge of first-class technology during their education, technology that will enable them to hit the ground running once they start their careers. With me today on this education special episode is someone who knows all too well the value of education, Jordan Cox. Jordan has spent the last 30 years working in industry, alongside teaching in academia. He also heads up PTC’s education segment.


Jordan, I recently read that the US alone could be facing a shortfall of more than six million engineers. And if you couple that with companies wanting to reshore their manufacturing, it looks like we aren’t churning out enough student engineers. So firstly, why do you think that is, and how does technology play a hand in enticing more students to take up engineering?


It’s a worldwide issue. We just don’t have enough engineers. Most students don’t know what engineers are or what they do until they enter university. As they haven’t been prepared in math and sciences, they ended up not being successful. The first aspect of solving that problem is to introduce engineering, and the understanding of what engineers do, earlier in the educational learning path. I also don’t think students are introduced to the technologies of engineering and understand how to use those, and how they’re used in industry, to better human life on the planet.


As a company, we do all we can to provide those educational establishments with access to our technologies. And they, in turn, embed some of that into the curricula. But it’s challenging for us to keep track of what the university needs. It’s also challenging for those educational establishments to keep track of how quickly our industry evolves.


It’s important for us to provide the latest tools and technologies to universities so students who are studying engineering and technology have access to them, so they’re prepared, once they graduate, to move into the workforce. That’s a very important component of PTC’s education program.

But it’s also important to introduce those technologies to them much earlier in their education program. There are two problems with that. One is most of those schools don’t have the infrastructure – meaning trained staff as well as the hardware to run that technology. But the biggest issue is that most of the educators are not really trained or have experience in STEM topics. Oftentimes, what I see is a school decides to offer a STEM program, and rather than hiring a person who has the background to be a STEM educator, they pick one of their existing educators and say, “Now you’re the STEM leader.” We get requests all the time from educators saying, “Gosh, do you have anything to help me get up to speed with these technologies?” That’s a real issue, and maybe it’s an issue where we need to look at trying to prepare these educators when they’re studying education at the university level to start getting familiar with some of the STEM technologies.


There’s also that issue around people in the public eye that are doing great things. For example, Johnny Yves was the head of industrial design at Apple for many, many years; his impact on all our lives has been huge, and he’s known to many of us that are in the industry. But is he a household name? We need people like him to be put up as role models to inspire that younger generation of engineers or industrial designers. People need to see more of those individuals and their contributions to our lives.


I totally agree. Another aspect of this is the fact that, when you work with young children, one of the things that you discover is there is a burning desire in them to help. They want to help; they want to contribute. And so, STEM programs that focus on either solving problems in the local community or solving worldwide problems are important. It’s what gets the students excited because they want to contribute. That’s a key element to really getting students excited.

Introduction to student, Stephen Sandhoop

Let’s meet somebody who is living proof of what can happen when you inspire young people with careers in engineering and technology. High school graduate Steven Sandhoop, based just outside Dusseldorf in Germany, has developed a surgical robot that can perform knee surgery on its own. An amazing achievement that simulates the world’s first surgery in a classroom.

Project overview

My project was to design and construct a robotic arm from scratch which could simulate a surgical operation of the knee. I referenced a real robotic arm that is used in surgical operations. I also 3D-printed and modelled an anatomically correct leg on which surgery is simulated. The robotic arm consists of two axes that are forward-oriented and can rotate horizontally. At the end of the robotic arm, there’s a drill just bigger than a needle.

It operates automatically but you can control it through the software on the laptop. In hospitals, they are still using robotic arms which simply assist the surgeon. I am working with a surgeon at a hospital in Kleve, Germany, which gave me financial support. I sent him images of what my knee replica looked like. He responded with advice on how I could make it more anatomically correct.

Our school has made great efforts into enabling our students to have further insight into STEM subjects. We have built a fabricating laboratory (Fab Lab) with laser cutters, 3D-printers, and all sorts of machines. I was lucky to be at that school to have access to all these kinds of machines, not only being supported with the knowledge of how to use them, but also financially supported. It’s been quite a journey throughout the project. I started with little prototypes but ended up with a big, complicated robot at the end. The project has made me more curious about all the kinds of subjects I explore, from physics to anatomy to mechanics, and I’ve learned a lot. Also, resilience is a big part of it, that you’re also going through the project, and you never give up!


We as a company continue to do all we can to make sure that our technology is fully available to support these types of projects for the future. Jordan, how is PTC supporting academia in that way?


PTC aims to enable the workforce of the future by providing resources and support for students, educators and academic institutions interested in learning and teaching PTC’s technology and software solutions as part of their STEM programs. The types of offerings have evolved over the 23 years since PTC first launched its initiative by creating the PTC Education Program, so offerings now include free and discounted software, original curriculum materials, online courses, certification, and engagement programs, just to name a few.


Thanks to Jordan and to Stephen for telling us his story and talking us through his project.

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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou, additional recording by Clarissa Maycock. And music by Rowan Bishop.

Episode Guests

Stephen Sandhoop, Student, Germany

Jordan Cox, SVP Academic Programs at PTC

More About PTC Education