As nurse educators we have an insatiable appetite for knowledge. We are constantly reading and studying to stay current on new developments and best practices, both in the field and in the classroom. While the core curriculum for Sentinel U’s digital learning resources and virtual simulations is crafted by our team of subject matter experts, I’ve often wondered how our lessons transform into our immersive, virtual worlds.

In recognition of Computer Science Education Week – a week devoted to promoting STEM education – I thought it was the perfect time to meet some of the men and women working diligently behind the scenes to make the magic happen. Their ingenuity and creativity are setting new standards in the education technology field and serve as an inspiration to future generations of developers.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Director of Learning Innovation Trevor Rasmusson, Senior Product Development Specialist Connor Tunney, Applications Systems Architect Sonja Zinai, and Unity Developer Michael Bezzina to talk about their personal backgrounds, what they love most about creating our virtual worlds, and what they see for the future of healthcare education technology.

How did you make the leap from computer programming or gaming into healthcare education?

Connor: I pursued a game design degree knowing that I wanted to use gaming to make the educational experience more engaging and fun. Before I got into nursing simulation, I was working with military and law enforcement training.

Michael: Like Connor, I also wanted to modernize the educational experience. Sentinel U allows me to utilize the practical application of game development in the nursing field.

Why is education important to you?

Sonja: Education has always been a priority for me and my family. I wanted to work for a company that would give me the opportunities I need to learn and grow as a developer. At Sentinel U, I am branching out and doing things that I’ve never done before. I appreciate that it also allows me to give people the tools they need to enhance their careers.

Trevor: I’ve always been involved in teaching. My background is actually in online education, not computer science. I left my position as a professor at an online university to take on a project management role in the student services department at American Sentinel creating resources to engage and retain students. The provost and I had a lot of the same interests in gaming and virtual worlds, and he created a position specifically for me with the vision of building next-level instructional resources. That’s how Sentinel U started. Today, I’m responsible for our product vision, ensuring we keep to the concept throughout the development process.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Trevor: I’m an ‘ideas person.’ I love to think outside of the box to come up with clever ways to deliver content. For example, the inspiration behind our Patient Management and Delegation® simulation came from playing a soccer video game. I saw how the players interconnected and impacted each other on the team and realized we could take that concept and apply it to our nursing simulation. Learners need to evaluate nursing skills and patient acuity to create a schedule. They need to take each patient and move them around to figure out what will work best to care for patients in the same way gamers do with the players on the field.

Connor: Personally, I’m inspired by our users. I’m always trying to make our products better by pushing them to the next level of experience, to broaden our scope and offer more deployables. Right now, we’re looking at virtual reality and mobile. I want to find which technologies make sense and get them to our end user. We are constantly tweaking the products to make them better.

How can simulation improve the learning experience, especially for practical skills like nursing?

Michael: I came from a virtual reality background, and simulations are much more engaging when you put the person into a specific space or scenario. The result is the task becomes a memory rather than a lesson to accomplish. Creating those moments and experiences through simulation helps learning sink in and grab hold.

Connor: People have different ways of learning. What we are doing with simulation is building a platform that combines all of these learning styles: tactile by using the keyboard, visual by watching the scenarios play out, and audio by listening to the informants. I really appreciate the flexibility our products provide learners.

What are some of the biggest challenges or greatest accomplishments you have experienced at Sentinel U:

Michael: Launching Sentinel City v.5 during the pandemic was challenging because it was a big project that needed to get done. We had to piece together the knowledge, work through obstacles, and keep going to ensure students had a new environment. In the end, I was able to step back and think, “Wow, we really did that, even when we thought it was going to be impossible, we did it.” That gives me an enormous sense of pride.

Sonja: I agree with Michael. We all really put our noses to the ground and worked extra hard on Sentinel City v.5 to ensure a smooth delivery. There were a lot of collaborative moments where we bonded over late nights and fifth cups of coffee, but it’s great working with people who are like-minded and have the same goals that you do.

Connor: When Sentinel U first started, we were a tiny team. We now have a larger team, but we’ve never lost sight of our number one goal – to provide great products that educate nurses. I’ve enjoyed working with academics and sales to see what the need is, what are the competencies we need to teach, and then making a product that’s fun and engaging.

What do you see for the future of virtual simulation in nursing education?

Trevor: Moving into 2022, I want to keep infusing fun into our products – ‘edutainment’ – because it’s so important for achieving learning objectives. One of the ways we are doing this is by continuing to build upon storytelling in our products. We are weaving together different characters’ stories to inspire learners to explore, ultimately deepening their learning.

Sonja: Obviously, we are short on nurses now and the more people we can get through our program, the more nurses we have saving lives. You don’t need brick-and-mortar classrooms to learn this critical information. Basically, we are helping the world, one nurse at a time.

Our final question: We know developers like to hide “Easter Eggs” in their work. Is that something you do when developing programs? What should we be looking for next time we are using one of our virtual simulations?

Trevor: Great question! When we were first working on Sentinel Town years ago, we liked the name Sentinel Acres. Unfortunately, the name was vetoed after some team members said it sounded like a nursing home facility. When it came time to picking a name for the nursing home in Sentinel City v.5 we knew it had to be called Sentinel Acres. It’s our little inside joke.

Here’s another fun one—on the outskirts of Sentinel Town, you will see a Sasquatch warning sign. We decided to take that to the next level in the updated version of Sentinel Town, which comes out soon. Be on the lookout for another Bigfoot. Spoiler alert – it’s in the farm’s logo.

Connor: We definitely incorporate inside jokes when designing our products, but here’s something very few people know. For the original Sentinel Town, I had to be the voice actor for one of the characters. It was kind of an embarrassing script about me pulling my teeth out with pliers, but it was fun. Today, we use professional voice actors…thank goodness.

Sonja: We love leaving little Easter Eggs for our nursing students. Since we’re speaking about them today, we created a few special ones. In the simulation, there are key informants who are integral to the Sentinel world. If students type in the keyword, “Developer” when talking to each key informant, they will receive a special message from us.

As you can see, there’s a great deal of hard work that goes on behind the scenes at Sentinel U. Our programmers are not only gifted coders and gamers, but incredible storytellers as well. They have mastered bringing characters and situations to life in the virtual simulation world.

While they continue to push the limits of imagination and seize on the capabilities of innovative technology, I can only wonder what tomorrow holds. Hopefully, Computer Science Education Week will open doors for future developers to enter the ever-expanding healthcare education technology industry.