There are not many 14-year-olds in Britain who have sat through open-heart surgery while the surgeon gives them a commentary on what he is doing. But earlier this month, 12 S3 health-care pupils and a handful of S5 boys considering a career in medicine sat motionless for more than two hours, watching a live link from Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey in the United States.
Leaning forward, hands to mouths, the pupils from Inveralmond Community High in Livingston watched the surgeon slice open the chest of an 80-year-old woman, ease the skin aside, ratchet the ribs open, lay the heart bare and then perform a bypass operation.
Three cameras picked up the action, while each step was explained in lay terms by the facilitators stationed 30 miles from the hospital at the Liberty Science Centre, also in New Jersey. Using videoconferencing, Liberty has been talking school children through major surgical procedures for more than 10 years.
"I added it up a little while ago," says Nancy Buctnik, programme director at LSC. "We have taken 27,000 students through the Cardiac Classroom programme alone, primarily in the US. We've held two sessions for adults at the Science Museum in London, but this is the first time we've done it for pupils in the UK."
The centre usually hosts the event, providing an in-depth explanation of what will happen and the terminology used before the operation begins, then letting pupils handle some of the equipment that will be used. This time, the pupils were thousands of miles away and the terminology was a real challenge. "We talked it through beforehand," says Linda Brown, a tutor from West Lothian College, who takes the 12 health-care pupils for their course. "Liberty provides good teacher resources."
The Cardiac Classroom is one of the opportunities open to students through Liberty. American school children have also witnessed neural surgery, living kidney donor transplants and robotic surgery. Some have witnessed childbirth via a live link. "It was amazing," says Rachel Christie, who is one of the first to study in the health academy at Inveralmond. "It was incredible to watch. I'd like to do something that people could respect as much."
During the whole procedure the facilitators and surgeons encouraged the pupils to ask questions. Jose Santigo, a geologist but now an expert commentator on certain surgical procedures, asked them about contributors to heart disease; the surgeon asked about treatments and terminology in Scotland.
The link was set up with the help of local company, Ethicon, a division of Johnson Johnson, which produces sutures that are shipped around the world. For the past 10 years, the company has had a close relationship with the school, but with the establishment of Inveralmond health academy in 2007, JJ became directly involved in providing learning opportunities for pupils.
Over the past year, they have been on visits to the factory to see medical equipment being made, shadowed workers and attended a lecture on the life cycle of products, which included showing early sutures made from human hair. Now they have watched open-heart surgery.
JJ's next move is to train volunteers from its workforce to become mentors to Inveralmond pupils.
It is all part of an initiative begun by the company in the States called Bridge to Employment (see panel).
The link with JJ provides an insight into working within health care, teaches employment skills and gives added interest to the course, while the academy, which is a link between the school and West Lothian College, offers pupils a chance to gain a qualification in care.
Linda Brown comes to the school once a week for a two-hour session to take the children through their Intermediate 1 in health care. Next session, the pupils will attend lessons at the college.
"It is a bridge between school and FE, with built-in progression. They will start with their Intermediate while still at school, but then they may go on and sit further qualifications at the college," says Andy Smith, depute head at Inveralmond. "We've been able to do this by programming a vocational column into the timetable. For a two-hour bloc each week, certain students choose a programme from broadcasting skills; fitness, health and exercise; hospitality; sport leadership; or engineering and technology."
Mark Turner, business unit manager and chair of JJ's community group, says: "This is the first time we've done this. We hope to build on it and support it in future years."
The response from other pupils about the live link was as positive as Rachel's. Donal Gillies and Dean Gordon from S5 were rethinking their Higher options to take more science, while Sarah Spence, who is doing health care, reported that it made learning more real to her.
It can't get much more real than watching live open-heart surgery.
BRIDGE TO EMPLOYMENT
More than 20 years ago, Johnson Johnson recognised the need to recruit more school leavers into the health-care sector, and to ensure they had the right sort of skills when they arrived. So in 1992 it launched Bridge to Employment (BTE) in the United States.
It was more than a recruitment exercise. It aimed to help redress the low academic achievement of some pupils and to stem the flood of young people leaving school before graduation by giving them real-life insights into the world of work.
"BTE's goal is to 'catch' students before they lose all interest in school and help them see the critical link between academic achievement and practical application," says Michael Bzdak, director of JJ corporate contributions.
Inveralmond is the first school outside North America to benefit from the scheme, thanks to the creation of the health care academy.
Hugh Tuckerman, previously an education officer at West Lothian Council and now BTE co-ordinator between the council and JJ, has helped facilitate the relationship, encouraging pupils to see beyond the classroom. "The perceptions of the world of work that children and young people form from an early age may not always be well-informed or accurate," he says.
"Misconceptions or lack of knowledge of career opportunities can be challenged through focused educational programmes. Johnson and Johnson's Bridge to Employment is one such programme."