Curricular Unit: Next-Generation Surgical Tools in the Body

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder

Five photos: Laparoscopic surgery being performed. Three students measuring the stretch of silly putty. A lump of silly putty seeps through a hole. Students control a remote camera and tools. A student uses a device to remotely collect data and samples.
Students learn about human anatomy and physiology, and the mechanics of biomaterials before designing their own laparoscopic surgical robots and testing them in a synthetic abdominal cavity simulator.
Copyright © (left to right) Samuel Bendet, US Air Force, Wikipedia; 2011 Janet Yowell, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder; Glitch010101, Wikipedia; 2010 Benjamin S. Terry, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder; 2011 Janet L. Yowell, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


Through this unit, students act as engineers who are given the challenge to design laparoscopic surgical tools. After learning about human anatomy and physiology of the abdominopelvic cavity, especially as it applies to laparoscopic surgery, students learn about the mechanics of elastic solids, which is the most basic level of material behavior. Then, they explore the world of fluids and learn how fluids react to forces. Next, they combine their understanding of the mechanics of solids and fluids to understand viscoelastic materials, such as those found in the human body. Finally, they learn about tissue mechanics, including how collagen, elastin and proteoglycans give body tissues their unique characteristics. In the culminating hands-on activity, student teams design their own prototypes of laparoscopic surgical robots—remotely controlled, camera-toting devices that must fit through small incisions, inspect organs and tissue for disease, obtain biopsies, and monitor via ongoing wireless image-taking. They use a (homemade) synthetic abdominal cavity simulator to test and iterate the prototype devices.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Biomechanical engineers work closely with laparoscopic surgeons to develop surgical procedures and tools. Biomechanical engineers must have an understanding of anatomy, physiology and surgery in order to communicate well with surgeons and other medical professionals. They also must have an understanding of materials properties so as to study pathologies and design implants and devices that function reliably and safely in the human body. Engineers partner with surgeons to create, design, test and manufacture new tools, devices and prosthetics—a partnership that helps to advance life-saving and life-enhancing technologies.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Communicate scientific and technical information about why the molecular-level structure is important in the functioning of designed materials. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Unit Overview

At the beginning of the unit, as part of lesson 1, introduce the culminating engineering design challenge of the unit, which is the design project described in the Designing a Robotic Surgical Device activity. After lesson 1, have student teams conduct its associated Challenges of Laparascopic Surgery activity as a hook to engage them in the subsequent lessons. Then present the mechanics of biomaterials lessons and activities (lessons 2, 3, 4 and 5, and their associated activities). After lesson 5 is presented, conduct the concluding design activity to complete the design challenge.

Unit Schedule

Suggested sequence to conduct the lessons and activities of this unit:

Lesson 1: Abdominal Cavity and Laparoscopic Surgery (100 minutes)

Activity: Challenges of Laparoscopic Surgery (55 minutes)

Activity: Using Hooke's Law to Understand Materials (50 minutes)

Lesson 2: Mechanics of Elastic Solids (75 minutes)

Lesson 3: Viscous Fluids (50 minutes)

Activity: Measuring Viscosity (80 minutes)

Activity: Creepy Silly Putty (first half of 60 minutes)

Lesson 4: Viscoelasticity (50 minutes)

Activity: Creepy Silly Putty (last half of 60 minutes)

Activity: Preconditioning Balloons: Viscoelastic Biomedical Experiments (30 minutes)

Lesson 5: Tissue Mechanics (25 minutes)

Activity: Designing a Robotic Surgical Device (two versions: 47 or 38 hours)

Other Related Information

Learn more about the creation of this curricular unit, which was based on engineering graduate student work:

Brandi N. Briggs, Benjamin S. Terry, Janet L. Yowell and Stephanie Rivale. (2011) Incorporating Biomechanical Research Topics into K-12 Classroom Design Projects to Broaden Participation and Increase Engineering Interest. Proceedings, ASME 2011 International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, November 11-17, 2011, Volume 5, Denver, CO. Paper #IMECE2011-64530.

Pre-Engineering Biomedical Curriculum Highlights Value of Engineering for High Schoolers. Published November 10, 2011. eNotes, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder. Accessed November 10, 2011.


Benjamin S. Terry, Brandi Briggs, Stephanie Rivale


© 2011 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder


This digital library content was developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: March 17, 2018