Biomedical Engineering Faculty Move to Hands-On Learning

July 17, 2014

Corporate America has laid down the gauntlet: Given the competitive pressures it faces, it no longer has the luxury of helping its new hires translate their theoretical knowledge of engineering into practical engineering skills. It needs engineering schools to produce graduates who come to their first job ready to contribute.

Guided by University and school strategic plans that call for more hands-on student experiences, and supported by U.Va.’s Teaching Resource Center, faculty members in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science are meeting the challenge. Like a growing number of their colleagues across Grounds, they are moving away from the old educational model, where students are passive recipients of information, to one in which students are active consumers of knowledge.

“It’s critically important that we do more than teach students about engineering,” said Frederick Epstein, chair of U.Va.’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. “We need to teach them to be engineers.”

Changes that two of Epstein’s colleagues, Associate Professors William Guilford and Brian Helmke, have made to their classes are representative of a transformation that is occurring in the biomedical engineering department – as well as across the school and other U.Va. disciplines.

Guilford and Professor Richard Price have made hands-on learning the centerpiece of the sections they teach of “Introduction to Engineering,” a course all first-year engineers take.. “We felt it essential for students to go beyond understanding engineering design as a series of abstract concepts,” Guilford said. “We wanted them to understand it viscerally – and the way to do that is to actually design, built and test something.”

With support from the Jefferson Trust, an Alumni Association endowment, they built a machine shop in Stacy Hall. “It’s essential for engineers on the Medical School side of Grounds to have access to an experiential learning space,” Guilford said.

For new students, the experience was a revelation. “This was the first class I had ever taken where you were expected to do something besides sit down and take notes,” said Rachel Stadler, a student in Guilford’s “Introduction to Engineering” section. “It was the also the first time I worked as part of a team in class. Trying to communicate and agree on what to do was something I had never thought about before as being part of engineering.”

Last fall, Guilford, who won the U.Va. Alumni Association Distinguished Professor Award in 2013, introduced this approach in “Biomedical Engineering Design and Discovery,” a second-year course required for majors. He challenged them to develop a better way to disinfect the tip of a pachymeter, a device that physicians use to measure the thickness of the cornea. Small errors in this process can destroy the instrument.

“There were so many things we had to master in the course of coming up with our design,” said Stadler, who took this course from Guilford as well. “We had to learn everything from using a 3-D printer and programming a microcontroller to cutting sheets of acrylic with table saws.”

In the process, Stadler and her teammates saw, in ways that would be hard to duplicate otherwise, what was required to refine and improve their design.

“Students learn that iteration is the essence of engineering,” Guilford said. “That’s an idea that’s difficult to convey in a traditional classroom.”

Helmke’s decision to restructure one of his classes had slightly different origins. His “aha” moment came as he taught “Biotransport,” another required course for biomedical engineering majors that he previously had taught using lectures, homework problems and tests. The material is math-heavy and so difficult that Helmke reserved a classroom to accommodate the 40 or 50 students who routinely came to his office hours.

“I would spend the time coaching groups of students on how to work through homework problems,” he said. “It started to occur to me that this was the setting where real learning was taking place.”

Helmke decided to “flip” Biotransport, devoting most of class time to reviewing problem sets and posting online as homework the content that had formerly been delivered in lectures for students. This is a classic instance of what is called “hybrid” or “blended” instruction, which combines face-to-face classroom teaching with learning from online materials.

Accordingly, Helmke applied for and received a Hybrid Challenge for Engaged Learning Grant, sponsored by the Teaching Resource Center and the Faculty Senate. “The Hybrid Challenge Grant enabled me to join a community of teachers and experts who could help me design more engaging classroom activities,” Helmke said. “In addition, I learned to better assess learning goals, so I could tell whether flipping the classroom was having a difference.”

In the classroom, the students work together to solve problems. “My goal is to create an environment that is collaborative, that reflects the way professional engineers work,” Helmke said. At the same time, he monitors students’ progress and intervenes from time to time if he observes students running up against a common roadblock.

Students were generally enthusiastic about the redesigned course, but faced new challenges in preparing for class.

“To an extent, the flipped classroom requires students to abandon a process, starting with lecture and working on problem sets, that has served them well throughout their careers,” Helmke said. “Some found the change unsettling.” He is working with Stacy Williams-Duncan, a graduate student in the Curry School of Education, to study student perceptions of the flipped classroom and gain a better understanding of this reaction.

Nonetheless, Helmke is convinced that students learn more when the classroom is devoted to hands-on learning. “The next step for me is to incorporate students’ perceptions and continue to improve the learning environment,” he said.

Of course, the close interaction between faculty and students that characterizes both of these innovative methods harkens back to the educational model that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Academical Village. And like most of Jefferson’s innovations, it is designed for efficiency.

“Flipping the classroom changes the role of the professor just as it changes the role of the student,” Helmke said. “I think it’s a more productive use of the experience I have to offer.”

-- by Charlie Feigenoff

Media Contact

Josie Pipkin

Director of Communications, School of Engineering and Applied Science