This article discusses that to better engage students, professors are integrating active learning methods into their biomedical classes. The goal is for students to develop entrepreneurial skills to aid students in thinking outside the box, using their developing technical skills to develop innovative solutions. Engineering programs are bringing the entrepreneurial mindset to younger students, often based on the definition used by the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network. Sponsored by the Kern Family Foundation, KEEN is a collaboration of 31 U.S. universities with the goal of supporting entrepreneurial skills in undergraduate engineering and technical students. KEEN says the entrepreneurial mindset has three critical components: curiosity, connections, and creating value. At Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, mechanical engineering assistant professor Laurel Kuxhaus is working with a KEEN grant to integrate active learning into sophomore-level studies.
Undergraduate college lecture courses can be notoriously boring: Large numbers of students in cramped classrooms or large auditoriums taking notes while an instructor tosses out lessons from a text. But the material covered in these basic courses—especially for engineering students—provides the foundation for everything to follow. Biomechanical and biomedical engineering students may have a bigger burden: They are tasked with those same classroom structures in a field that is relatively new with a wide technical scope. They are required to develop functional expertise in a wide variety of fields, from materials chemistry to mechanics, and develop engineering skillsets in a short time.
To make content more engaging while boosting learning, more colleges are inserting active-learning elements into early undergraduate lessons. The goal is for students to develop entrepreneurial skills to aid students in thinking outside the box, using their developing technical skills to develop innovative solutions. In many cases, it is the first time young students are given real-world, open-ended assignments where there can be more than one solution to a given problem.
Engineering programs are bringing the entrepreneurial mindset to younger students, often based on the definition used by the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network. Sponsored by the Kern Family Foundation, KEEN is a collaboration of 31 U.S. universities with the goal of supporting entrepreneurial skills in undergraduate engineering and technical students. KEEN says the entrepreneurial mindset has three critical components: curiosity, connections, and creating value.
At Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., mechanical engineering assistant professor Laurel Kuxhaus is working with a KEEN grant to integrate active learning into sophomore-level studies. In an introductory biomechanics class of 35 students, she posed a research question on whether cervine vertebral cancellous bon— deer vertebrae—was appropriate for use in biomechanical studies, a question unanswered in literature, she said.
“It is contextualizing a problem with real-world aspects,” she said. Although her students gave the exercise high marks, she said they “are uncomfortable with open-ended problems. But it’s a part of their educational development. They don’t know how to trust themselves.”
At the University of Alabama-Birmingham, biomedical professor Joel Berry went out of the classroom and developed a partnership between the university’s school of nursing, biomedical engineering department, honors college, and hospital to link undergraduate students with clinicians looking for help in dealing with real-world problems. The challenge is to accelerate the translation of innovation from the clinical setting into practice, he said.
The clinical innovation class targets sophomores, although senior biomedical capstone students also participated, Berry said. “Students lacked clinical immersion until their senior design project. There’s a need to engage in real-world experience earlier,” he said.
Berry conceived UAB Solution Studios in 2017 to connect the groups. “We’ve got a pretty big hospital here, so it seemed a natural [fit],” he said. Nursing graduate students and clinicians from UAB Hospital were recruited to provide specific unsolved problems they deal with daily in medical care, including those found in cardiovascular, surgical, intensive care, and other departments.
Key to the effort is a web-based interactive portal connecting students with professionals where clinicians post problems and students select them for development. Breaking into teams, they then shadow the clinicians to see and better understand the problems facing clinicians and patients before attempting to develop solutions.
“This is most essential, especially dealing with empathy,” said Berry, who feels strongly that students must understand the needs of patients and how they deal with their medical issues.
The honors class shadowed clinicians over two weeks, dividing into teams. Then, they researched literature for relevant background along with patients to describe problems and solutions. Finally, they built basic prototypes and presented them to clinicians for feedback. The sophomore class produced four device solutions and one process. Two projects then moved to full design: a redesign of ostomy bags to reduce infection and improvements to how tubing, catheters, and other equipment are secured to the body to reduce skin ulcers.
Berry said the website was important to the success of the effort. Students and clinicians found it easier to communicate with each other through the portal than with emails or face-to-face meetings. Now, he’s working to improve the website and open it to other universities.
“We’re now in the middle of the second year, and we’re going to expand from a digital platform connecting students with clinicians to a free-standing web platform scaled to other institutions,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success for access by clinicians, but there is limited functionality.”
Three universities have already shown interest, but there are no commitments yet. “We want to create a product to license to them,” he said. But the UAB program continues to move forward. Initially, most of the clinicians who volunteered were nurses and therapists. Berry said more doctors now are participating and students are working on a third project, to develop a modified way of transporting patients needing spinal immobilization.
“Now, these patients are moved to what is basically a rigid backboard,” he said. “There’s a big problem in creating skin ulcerations. So the project is to create a low-cost backboard that evenly distributes the forces throughout the body.”
Development will be done by students selected for a 12-week summer fellowship funded by a university grant. He expects most of the students to be biomedical students with a pre-med major. “We’re creating a competitive application process for twelve weeks, forty hours a week, to do a deep dive into the work,” he said.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute has long used project-based lessons in its engineering curriculum, notes Kristen Billiar, chair of the school’s biomedical engineering department. He said all but one of the biomedical professors now is trained in KEEN, and entrepreneurial elements are being added throughout the curriculum.
Billiar wove entrepreneurial elements into his sophomore-level class on biomechanics, typically taught with lectures, quizzes, and tests to judge technical proficiency. “We changed the learning objective somewhat. We want them to learn static analysis better, so we introduced a real-world problem. We want them to communicate and work as a team.”
In his initial two-week effort, some homework assignments covering moments, forces, and static analysis were jettisoned. Instead, students were presented with a problem of veterinarians reporting unacceptable rates of cracking of the plastic portion of acetabular cups in hip-replacement products for dogs. Students were divided into teams and asked to analyze mechanics of canine hips to determine the force that the ball applies to the acetabular cup. They were offered extra credit if they could devise a better design or alternative solution to the problem.
Over 75 percent of the teams produced a design for solution for extra credit, including using more durable materials for the replacement parts or changing the geometry.
In testing, they did significantly better in describing concepts of static analysis, compared to previous classes that relied solely on lectures and homework. But they scored lower in quizzes on forces and moments and static equilibrium.
“Answers to conceptual questions went way up, but quantitative one went down,” Billiar said. That result that should not be surprising since students were not required to do the same types of problems presented in the quizzes.
Billiar adjusted and put homework back into the course along with the conceptual real-world problem in the second class to use the concept. Student feedback has been positive, he said, and the use of conceptual and actual real-world problems increases in junior and senior-level classes.