Active Teaching Methods Shake Up Biomedical Education

To better engage students, professors are integrating active learning methods into their biomedical classes.

by John Kosowatz
December 18, 2017

Biomedical education can follow the same learning path as other disciplines: an instructor presents the material in a lecture, students take notes, quizzes follow. But the discipline is relatively new and has a wide technical scope. Biomedical engineers must have functional expertise in a wide variety of fields, from mechanics to materials chemistry, and undergraduates have a comparatively short time to master new concepts and develop skillsets for engineering. To better engage students, especially lower-level undergraduates, professors are integrating active learning methods into their classes, giving young students real-world problems to attack while learning the basics.

The goal is to develop an entrepreneurial mindset to aid students in thinking outside the box and in using technical skills to develop innovative solutions. Engineering programs are bringing the concept to younger students, often based on the definition used by KEEN, Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network. KEEN says the definition has three critical components: curiosity, connections and creating value.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute has long used project-based lessons in its engineering curriculum. All but one of the biomedical professors now is trained in KEEN, and entrepreneurial elements are being added throughout the curriculum, says Kristen Billiar, chair of the school’s biomedical engineering department.

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,” he says. “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 the 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% of the teams produced a design for their solution for extra credit. Designs included using more durable materials for the replacement parts or changing the geometry. In testing, the students 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, moments and static equilibrium.

“Answers to conceptual questions went way up, but quantitative ones went down,” says Billiar, a result that should not be surprising because students were not required to do the same types of problems that were 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 says, and the use of conceptual and actual real-world problems increases in junior and senior-level classes.

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 says.

The clinical innovation class targets sophomores, although senior biomedical capstone students also participated. “Students lacked clinical immersion until their senior design project,” he says. “There’s a need to engage in real-world experience earlier.”

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 says. 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, dermatology and other departments.

Key to the effort is a web-based interactive portal connecting students with professionals. There, clinicians post their problems and students review and 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,” says 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 patents to describe problems and solutions. Finally, they built basic prototypes and presented them to clinicians for feedback.

The sophomore class produced four devices and one process. Two projects then moved to full design: a redesign of ostomy bags to reduce infection and another on improving how tubing, catheters and other equipment are secured to the body to reduce skin ulcers.

Berry says 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 says. “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 not any commitments yet. “We want to create a product to license to them,” he says. But the UAB program continues to move forward. Initially, most of the clinicians who volunteered were nurses and therapists. Berry says 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 says. “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 twelve-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 12 weeks, 40 hours a week, to do a deep dive into the work,” he says. “Projects are being pushed to a real testing phase. We have to convince someone to invest.”

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