Anjali Donthi remembers volunteering at the Mayo Clinic when she saw a child having a melt down. Donthi offered the girl a stuffed animal in an effort to help calm her down. The gesture only helped for a moment before the girl resumed her wailing.
That was a moment that made Donthi think about ways she could help children get through the stress of being in a hospital a little more easily.
"It really made me sad and broke my heart that there are kids like this who are facing anxiety and fear for hospital visits," Donthi said.
To help take away some of the fear of the unknown, Donthi and fellow students Sarah Bulur and Caitlin McWilliams created an app that can help prepare children for surgery. The students consider the app a working prototype, but it's already gained some noticeable attention.
It recently won the technology category for T-Mobile's Changemaker Challenge. The app also got the team named one of six senior division finalists of Technovation's global contest. Technovation is a world-wide nonprofit that encourages girls to solve problems with technology.
Last year, the students' app was a winner in the Congressional App Challenge.
The students are headed off to college this fall. To some extent, the process of developing the app has helped Donthi decide what she wants to pursue as she furthers her education.
"I definitely want to go into the health care field in some way, she said. "Without working on our project, I would never have considered going into business."
McWilliams plans to major in economics and environmental studies. Bulur is planning to study biomedical engineering.
The students created a YouTube video describing the concept of their app. The video describes how children who are less anxious before their surgeries ultimately have better rates of healing. The video explains how the app offers children both education about their upcoming procedure as well as emotional support options.
It allows children to perform their own mock surgery. It helps them understand what will happen the day of the surgery, and teaches them "habits and techniques to prepare for surgery," according to the video. It also offers information about local support groups and religious places where they may find comfort.
The app isn't finished. The students are considering hiring an app developer to take their initial design to the next level. McWilliams said the trio ultimately hopes to market the app directly to hospitals.
The students started the project in late 2019. Even though it isn't finished yet, they've already come a long way. Donthi said that at one point in the process, they had to rebuild it to flush out the bugs in the system.
In addition to the technical aspect of building the app and the business aspect of getting it out into the world, the group also had to tackle some content challenges. Namely, they had to find out what their app needed to do to actually help children.
"We wanted to make sure we were actually addressing the problem," McWilliams said. "So we talked to a child life specialist and an surgeon for pediatric patients and made sure we asked: 'hey, what do they really need?'"
As far as they can tell, they've found a problem that didn't have very many solutions. A child life specialist who the students spoke to said she didn't know of any apps to help educate children about the surgical process.
"Operation Serenity effectively holds the patient’s hand and guides them through the entire surgical experience in an educational sense," the students wrote in the application for the Changemaker Challenge.