Undergraduate Curriculum Teaches Skills to Solve Real-life Engineering Problems

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In 2001, the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering welcomed its first undergraduate class. Four years later, 17 students graduated with biomedical engineering degrees. Now there are more than 800 undergraduates in the program.“Biomedical engineering has captured the imagination of young students,” says Wendy Newstetter, who is director of learning sciences research for the Coulter Department. “The thought of helping society through science and engineering is very attractive to them.”Since its inception in 1997, the Coulter Department has been dedicated to education – with part of a $16 million grant from the Whitaker Foundation earmarked for educational innovation. A strong focus of the undergraduate curriculum is problem-based learning, a student-centered instructional strategy in which students work in small collaborative groups to solve open-ended problems with a faculty member serving as facilitator.Special classrooms in the U.A. Whitaker Building were designed for problem-based learning courses. The small rooms, which are set up like conference rooms with whiteboard-covered walls, are critical to the learning process, says Paul Benkeser, associate chair for undergraduate studies in the Coulter Department.In the freshman biomedical engineering class, groups of eight students are given three relevant biomedical engineering problems such as improving cancer screening and/or detection methods; identifying sources of error in a biomedical device; and developing mathematical models of the heart.Tackling these difficult research problems seems to help students gain confidence in their ability to conduct research, says Newstetter. More than one-third of the students in the undergraduate program participate in research. For the spring 2008 semester, Coulter Department students accounted for 20 of the 70 Georgia Tech students winning President’s Undergraduate Research Awards.“We start teaching the students the sophisticated skills required for them to be successful biomedical engineers in the freshman problem-based learning course,” explains Newstetter. “But problem-based learning reappears throughout the curriculum – in the junior-level design course and even the laboratory courses.”Instead of a typical physiology laboratory where a student may only learn cell biology assays, the Coulter Department incorporates engineering and biology into a cohesive package by bringing the disease to the forefront, says Essy Behravesh, who is director of the instructional laboratories in the Coulter Department.When the students take the two-semester senior design project course, they’re ready to undertake a major design project that incorporates engineering standards and realistic constraints.“This is a real-life engineering experience for our students,” says Benkeser. “They have to learn how to communicate professionally with a client, submit engineering design specifications to the client for approval and keep the client apprised of progress.”Past clients have included physicians affiliated with Emory University, Northside Hospital, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and engineers and scientists from local biotechnology companies. By the time the students graduate, they find value in the problem-based learning approach.“The farther away I get from my problem-based learning experiences, the more I realize how much I learned from them,” says Anu Parvatiyar, a senior in the Coulter Department. “I learned a lot of the core skills involved in problem solving and design that make a biomedical engineer successful.”


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Claire Labanz
  • Created: 11/11/2014
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016


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