One cool CAT: Mini-machine broadens teaching opportunities

While it may be miniature in size, its capacity to teach students looms large.

The brainchild of Western Medical Biophysics professors Jerry Battista and Kevin Jordan, the DeskCAT – a miniature CT (Computed Tomography) scanner small enough to sit on a counter – brings a novel and interactive method to teach CT imaging techniques to a wide range of students.

With clinical CT or CAT (Computed Axial Tomography) scanners large enough to handle a human patient and fill an entire room, it was logistically impossible to take an entire class to the scanner. So out of educational necessity, Battista felt the need to invent the DeskCAT.

“By scaling it down, it makes it so students can run it,” said Battista, adding the DeskCAT eliminates a time gap in teaching. “It’s better than a bunch of theories written on the board. You teach – and it’s very mathematical, with a lot of theory and physics behind it – and we’ll try to get to a scanner and then say ‘Come back three weeks later.’ By then, you’ve decayed the knowledge.

“You get this in the same hour and you retain a lot more.”

With two currently being used at Western in third-year courses, the DeskCAT is manufactured and distributed by London-based Modus Medical Devices, with universities such as Laval, as well as educational institutions in Malaysia and Korea, having already purchased the $10,000 device.

Full-size CAT scanners rotate a narrow fan beam of X-rays around a region of the body, which are then used to create detailed images stacked together to form a 3D image. The DeskCAT, however, uses visible light rays to form multiple views of a transparent specimen.

But the best part, Battista said, is the mathematical method of reconstructing the 3D picture is identical to the full-scale system.

“A lot of options that come up on this (DeskCAT) are very similar to what would come up on a clinical machine,” Battista said. He noted it’s not as sophisticated as a flight simulator, but gets pretty close to the real deal.

“You would not use this and then have your license to drive the X-ray CT scanner,” he added. “If you just learn to operate the machine, you would not know what is under the hood on an X-ray CT scanner. You would simply push a button and hear some sounds and you get a picture. This teaches you what goes on under the hood.”

Linada Kaci, a Western master’s graduate in geophysics, now a research assistant with Battista, has been excited to see the development of the DeskCAT.

“It is a good way to better understand what is happening and going on,” she said of the shrunk-down learning device. “You can read things in books, but when you see this demonstrated and you get to do it yourself, the knowledge sticks a lot better. I wish I could have had something like when I was in school, it’s the perfect tool.”

Jordan and Battista are not new to the inventing world. About a decade ago they developed an optical scanner for clinical use, which measures radiation doses in gels. The DeskCAT, however, is strictly for educational means.

While a two-person operation, the ability to project the scanned images from a laptop to a projector involves the entire class in the learning process.

Battista said he’s also working on another project – going from DeskCAT to WebCAT. Universities could log-in and select a scanned object from a library (pre-scanned by Western) and receive the raw data they could then use on their end.

“My wildest dream is that every university with a medical physics mix, or medical school, is a potential customer,” Battista said.