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Now more than ever nursing students at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh have opportunities to prepare for healthcare environments of tomorrow with the top technology of today.

Both undergraduate and graduate students for years have gained hands-on experience in the College of Nursing’s Simulation Training Center. But recent investments in new technology—including virtual reality—have expanded what’s possible in nursing simulation.

Marianne Madariaga, director of the simulation and skills lab, said the addition of the four Meta Quest 2 headsets that arrived in late summer will provide another way for students to practice their skills at a time when clinical opportunities are limited.

“They’re actually virtually in the room with the patient,” Madariaga explained. “So they have to do the correct intervention, otherwise the patient takes a turn for the worse.”

While any sort of simulation relies on the student being able to suspend some disbelief, virtual reality does offer a level of realism beyond what past generations of nursing students experienced. And after each virtual exercise, students are able to get feedback from both their instructors and peers.

Madariaga said students at times will be able to get virtual reality reps without it being a part of a broader simulation. “It could be practice, it could be an assignment from the classroom, or they could just do it on their own because they want more clinical experience, because not everybody truly gets that,” she said.

The plan for this fall semester is to just let students experiment with it. Because of its August arrival, instructors didn’t have time to build it into any curriculum. But before long—likely by the winter semester—virtual reality will be yet another tool for the College of Nursing to produce “highly developed nurses who can readily practice clinical judgment in a timely fashion in crucial situations,” Madariaga said.

Gaining experience

The immersive virtual reality system SIMVANA, meanwhile, arrived at UWO this year and will be integrated into the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)-nurse anesthesia program curriculum beginning with the class of 2026 cohort.

“One of the advantages of these things is you can let the students sit there and struggle and figure out what they need to do because there’s no harm,” said Kathleen Wren, associate professor and director of the DNP-nurse anesthesia program.

Another new piece of equipment is a NeedleTrainer, produced by the company Intelligent Ultrasound. Much like it sounds, it’s an ultrasound-guided training tool used to teach needling—without the use of an actual skin-puncturing needle. Instead it features a retractable needle and virtual imaging to simulate needling on a live participant. Students develop the necessary hand-eye coordination, ideal positioning and accuracy without risk.

“Simulation is an essential part of the nurse anesthesia program,” said Jess Tomasiewicz, assistant professor and the program’s assistant director. “Simulation has been proven to help lower stress, increase confidence and enhance learning for students.”

About a year ago the lab added an ORSIM bronchoscope simulator. Set up almost like a laptop game, it is used to simulate fiber-optic bronchoscope intubations on a variety of airway issues with normal adult and pediatric anatomy. Like a lot of the new technology, an advantage of the ORSIM is the ability for students to practice different actions again and again in a low-risk environment.

Gregory Geurts, who will graduate in May as part of a cohort of DNP-nurse anesthesia students, said these tools can better prepare students for the real-life situations they’ll encounter in the clinical setting.

“It’s a low-pressure environment to test things out,” said Geurts, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2018 and another in nursing in 2019, both at UWO. “Obviously when we are in the operating room there’s much more urgency and it needs to be done correctly. You can make errors here without worrying about missing something or hurting the patient.”

Wren said, for example, in her decades of healthcare experience she’s only encountered one patient having a horrendous allergic reaction to a medication—and she’s never had a patient experience malignant hypothermia. “However, in the lab we can present the students with those situations so that, heaven forbid, if they experience it with a human patient they’ve already done it a few times before.”

“It becomes an experience in their bank of experiences—whether human patient or simulation—that makes them a better practitioner and better able to handle some wild emergency that maybe one other person in the state has seen in the past five years,” she said.

Modernization project

The Simulation Training Center, which earlier this year earned accreditation from the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, has provided nursing students with realistic learning opportunities since its launch in 2016. It prepares students not only for clinical situations but for community-based healthcare, first responder situations, athletic training and more.

The CON needs to continue to keep pace with the always-evolving healthcare industry and to remain a leader in nursing education. A new lab modernization project is underway in hopes of raising money to both update and replace aging equipment and invest in new technologies.

Among the needs are new or updated physical lab tools like manikins, needling systems, ultrasound simulations and computers. Virtual reality options and remote video-based coaching need expanding. In all, an investment of $2 million is needed to continue to prepare the next generation of nursing professionals. Anyone wishing to give should visit

“Technology is infused into almost every aspect of healthcare,” said Polly Anderson, senior lecturer and simulation coordinator.“The synergy between the educational delivery methods, technology and the environment provided to students at the UW Oshkosh College of Nursing prepares them for the diverse demands of a career in nursing.

“By providing our students access to cutting-edge technology, we allow them the opportunity to understand how the human factor of healthcare impacts and interacts with tools—meaning technology and equipment—in a safe environment conducive to mastery-level learning.”

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