Feature stories

The operating room

Science teachers mold young surgeons in Queens middle school’s after-school program

Dr. Edgar Andrade assists students as they dissect “Marie,” the sheep heart they Bruce Cotler

Dr. Edgar Andrade assists students as they dissect “Marie,” the sheep heart they named for Marie Curie.

Students work cautiously to open the heart flap and identify the inner structure Bruce Cotler

Students work cautiously to open the heart flap and identify the inner structures.

Each team of two receives a heart for dissection. Bruce Cotler

Each team of two receives a heart for dissection.

A select group of 8th-graders at MS 217 in Queens knows exactly how to get to the heart of the matter.

Working in teams of two and warned that “the scalpels are very sharp,” the young scientists search for the upper great vein of their sheep’s hearts and begin to cut. With scalpels, probes and scissors at hand, students in the Briarwood school’s after-school Heart Surgery Program begin the exacting work of dissecting hearts. 

The would-be surgeons listen carefully. “Figure out where you are before you begin and review what cuts you will be making,” Dr. Edgar Andrade advises. “Make the first cut deep enough and check the landmarks.” 

There’s not a sound as students begin to probe the hearts that they had cleared of surrounding fat the day before. Murmuring satisfaction at the feel of the probes they have inserted, they make their incisions. Now the challenge is to distinguish the ventricles and to move into the heart’s inner structure. There’s a quiet intensity in the room.

Over the course of 18 sessions that rival a high school AP science course, meeting several times a week from 4 to 5:30 p.m., Andrade and his fellow science teacher Steven Mindin have prepared students well for this day.

Both bring relevant backgrounds to their work. While waiting for a medical school residency match, Andrade decided to become a teaching fellow 10 years ago and is still teaching. Mindin brings medical and veterinary technician credentials to this “labor of love” that he has been engaged in for 15 years.

Students began studying the circulatory system — using the subway system as an analogy — and the heart by creating their own procedures for viewing red blood cells in goldfish. They moved on through the study of blood vessels, blood products and heart diseases before the culminating heart surgery on a sheep.

The last session of the program will be a field trip to the Bodies exhibition.

The afternoon sessions in Mindin’s science room — which looks like an exhibit room in the American Museum of Natural History — don’t exactly replicate a hospital operating room, but the student focus, vocabulary and observations make it come pretty close. The students may have taken their cue from a teleconference that they participated in as doctors at a Chicago hospital performed triple bypass surgery and answered their questions.

The old days of girls recoiling with a shriek at the sight of a real heart are gone. “Wow” was the overall reaction as the female scientists made their cuts, opened a flap and began identifying the inner structure of the heart. At the start of the program, getting girls was a challenge according to the teachers. Now, the teachers say, it’s harder to recruit boys.

MS 217 science teachers recommend 8th-grade students with high academic standing and good behavior “who can be trusted with scalpels” for the sought-after after-school program.

The program was started eight years ago by former teacher Bruce Zihal. Andrade and Mindin took over six years ago and have increased the program to three sessions a year to meet growing demand. Eighth-grader Poonam Dass said she chose the school because of the program.

The Heart Surgery Program is just one example of how MS 217 hums with stimulating activities, with teachers at the heart of it all. Mindin is just back from the school’s annual student camping trip and he runs a Pet Vet program about handling and learning about animals. Together Andrade and Mindin rounded up students and created on school property a vegetable garden and a garden of trees, flowering plants and benches open to the community.

Principal Patrick Burns calls the pair “truly dedicated to the academic and social welfare of MS 217 students, the kind of teachers you want for your own children.”

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