BME Freshmen Take On Real-World Problems

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Many believe the H5N1 virus — bird flu — is one of the deadliest viruses known to man, and a Dutch scientist has created a mutant form of the virus that can easily spread from person to person. He wants to publish his findings in an international scientific journal.       

Opinions are divided on whether to allow this. Some warn that the information could be used for bioterrorism, while others argue that it could be used to develop new vaccines and drugs to fight dangerous viruses. 

Imagine that you’ve been asked to consider this scenario and determine what impact publishing the work will have on the world. Now imagine that you’re only a freshman in college.  

Welcome to the course “Problems in Biomedical Engineering,” which all freshmen in Georgia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) are required to take. During the course, students analyze and respond to scenarios just like this one.  

“My intention was to have them try on the identity of a biomedical engineer,” said Wendy Newstetter, who helped develop the curriculum and is now director of educational research and innovation for the College of Engineering. “The goal is to empower students to become agents of their own learning, who are fearless in the face of a complex problem.” 

When BME created the course in 2000, it was one of the first engineering programs in the country to integrate problem-based learning — which has its origins in medical education — into a curriculum, Newstetter added. (The department received a 2013 Regents’ Teaching Excellence Award for its design and implementation of a problem-focused curriculum.)

Students are divided into teams of eight and are given three problems to analyze over the course of the semester. Problems can stem from newspaper headlines or a presentation that one of the BME faculty members recently attended at a conference.

“The scenarios we give these students are difficult to work through,” Newstetter said. “But their fear of dealing with these complex issues diminishes as they become more familiar with the problem-solving process.” 

At the end of each four-and-a-half-week problem cycle, teams come to a resolution that two team members present to the class. Although the nature of the problems changes from semester to semester, the learning outcomes remain the same and include the following: tackle a complex real-world problem, conduct self-directed inquiry, demonstrate effective group skills and communicate solutions to problems.

In addition to the problem-solving focus of the course, another unique component is that the facilitator-to-student ratio is 8-to-1. Facilitators can include faculty members, post doctoral students or graduate students.

“Usually, senior faculty members don’t engage much with freshmen students,” Newstetter said. “This approach provides students with an opportunity to engage with BME faculty on a personal level, which leads to a number of them continuing on to do undergraduate research throughout their time at Tech.”

Since the BME course launched, Newstetter has worked with various units including the School of Aerospace Engineering and the School of Public Policy to integrate problem-based learning into other curricula. (The Whistle will be featuring articles on some of the other problem-based courses at Tech in future issues.) 

For more information, contact Newstetter.



  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Amelia Pavlik
  • Created:11/12/2012
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016