Bright ideas Master's student research explores concept generation in design

by Kim Roth

Generating ideas during an engineering design process is crucial to developing successful solutions. But teaching – and learning – about idea generation in design is challenging for instructors and students alike.

Anastasia Ostrowski (BSE BME ’16, MSE BME ’17), has been conducting research with the aim of providing insights to improve idea generation, and therefore design education, for BME students.

Ostrowski’s thesis research began with “a series of questions,” she says: “What do students think about idea generation? How do instructors discuss idea generation in class? How do students approach coming up with ideas, and what influences their choice in approach?”

To begin answering them, she designed a research project looking at BME students’ conceptions of idea generation and how students tackle idea generation during a class design project. Through a series of interviews with students and observations of teams’ idea generation sessions, she came away with some interesting findings.

For one, Ostrowski found misconceptions among students about the definition and importance of idea generation. “We found students tended to lump idea generation together with evaluation and selection activities, treating them all as one design phase when they’re really distinct activities,” she says.

Given the time pressure of a typical one-semester design course, as well as other constraints, it’s not surprising. “Students kind of have to come up with a set number of ideas, pick one, and go,” she adds.

But that’s not to say students are going about the process the “wrong” way, or that professors aren’t teaching the “right” way. Rather, she hopes to identify ways to help students “open up the design space” to explore many concepts before they must engage their inner critics and select one to pursue.

The research, advised by Shanna Daly, assistant professor in mechanical engineering and engineering education, and Aileen Huang-Saad, assistant professor in BME, entrepreneurship, and engineering education, supports upcoming changes to the BME design curriculum. The new curriculum will include specific strategies for facilitating idea generation.

“For novice designers, it takes a lot of time to work through and gain these skills,” Ostrowski

For novice designers, it takes a lot of time to work through and gain these skills,” Ostrowski says.

Thesis defense now behind her, Ostrowski is spending the summer on a Whitaker International Fellowship. She’s in Switzerland, where she is conducting ethnographic studies of the BME design process of prosthetics and rehabilitation devices with Professor Silvestro Micera, who directs the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.


Improving medical devices Collaboration by design

Image caption: Clare Donohue at Medical Device Sandbox redesign session. Credit: Lauren Stuart.

by Kim Roth

The design of health-related and medical devices directly impacts patient safety, and engineers and clinicians designing, and using, medical devices depend upon each other’s expertise.

A new experiential learning opportunity at U-M, the Medical Device Sandbox (MDS), helps both BME students and health care learners, including medical students, residents, nurses, and other health providers, collaborate across disciplines to improve device design and, ultimately, patient safety.

“Interprofessional collaboration and shared learning between BME students and health care learners is absolutely critical to designing and using medical devices in the clinic that are effective and safe for patients,” says John Gosbee, MD, a lecturer in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Internal Medicine and a human factors engineering and patient safety consultant.

“Interprofessional collaboration and shared learning between BME students and health care learners is absolutely critical to designing and using medical devices in the clinic that are effective and safe for patients,” -John Gosbee

Gosbee conceived of the MDS and, working closely with colleagues, BME Professor Jan Stegemann and BME Lecturer Rachael Schmedlen, has held more than two dozen MDS sessions to date.

The guided, structured, and interdisciplinary sessions begin in a simulated patient examination or hospital room at either the U-M Center for Experiential Learning and Assessment or the Clinical Simulation Center. Gosbee presents the group – typically four to six BME students and four to six medical learners – with a realistic scenario that involves the use of a medical device.

Guided by the instructor, the students identify potential design flaws, use errors, and safety issues.

During a recent session, Gosbee asked a participant to climb on and off the examination table, just as doctors routinely ask patients to do. The other students observed. Gosbee continued to prompt students with probable scenarios – the patient has a twisted ankle, the patient is short, the patient’s hands slip on the paper as they try to climb on.

BME students and health care learners constructing prototypes of their redesign ideas. Credit: John Gosbee and Jennifer Lee.

Next, the group brainstorms possible solutions. In the case of the exam table, students suggested moving the step to the side of the table, adding an extra step, and adding handrails.

Interactivity is key. Instead of simply talking about or sketching the changes they would make, students use prototyping materials – items such as foam core, scrap fabric, glue, and tape – to build a three-dimensional representation of their ideas. Participants then share their ideas with the group, and Gosbee helps them synthesize takeaway lessons.

Sessions have included a range of devices and scenarios, including layperson use of an automated external defibrillator, a pulse oximeter found in a first responder’s medical bag, and a medication organizer a patient would use at home.

Students also have brought course projects to the sessions, for example, a liver biopsy simulator from BME 450 and an existing and redesigned EKG device, brought by internal medicine residents.

The MDS name, fittingly, refers to sandbox mode in gaming, where players are freed from the usual rules and constraints.

“Bringing learners from these two disciplines together has transformative potential,” says Gosbee. “Having a creative physical and intellectual space where this kind of interaction can take place brings everyone closer to their shared goal of safer, more effective devices.”

To date, about 100 medical learners and 136 BME students – from BME 450, 452, 499, 599, and M-HEAL – have participated. BME undergraduate Jennifer Lee (’17) played an important role in organizing and running sessions and ensuring as many BME students as possible participated.

BME students who have taken part in the MDS have said it’s helped them think more about patient safety and usability testing as a crucial part of the design process – and that working with health care learners was a key way to better incorporate their expertise.

Other students said they no longer felt resigned to work with products as they currently exist and felt empowered by the redesign process.

In the words of one participant, “Redesign is an outlet for change.”

The MDS has been supported by the Third Century Initiative at U-M and by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R25-EB019898.


Clinical Peer Mentors Identifying clinical needs and resources for the BME design program

This summer marks the second round of a new clinical peer mentor (CPM) program that offers internships to BME students interested in documenting clinical needs and resources for BME design courses.

The program is part of a series of NIH-supported enhancements to the design program. Its goal is to pick up where BME 499/Clinical Observation and Needs Finding leaves off to ensure that students in the senior design courses hit the ground running with curated, well-researched project options.

It’s also a rich experience for the peer mentors themselves, who learn to navigate the clinical environment and interact with healthcare providers to identify the kinds of clinical problems that are ripe for BME solutions.

“The clinical peer mentors start with material from the needs finding class,” says BME lecturer and CPM advisor Rachael Schmedlen. “After training in observational frameworks and U-M Health System protocols, they begin working in the various medical departments where needs were identified. They shadow providers, observe procedures, and conduct interviews. They also dig into the prior art – what solutions exist and how crowded the patent space is. From there, they determine the most promising needs and provide the background that design groups will need to begin tackling the problem. The process often leads CPMs to identify new needs, as well.”

In its first year, the program hosted two interns, BME undergraduates Ayana Dambaeva and Rodrigo Rangel (now a graduate student at the University of Southern California). One of the needs they identified – a method to help patients with multiple sclerosis improve their “key pinch” – was chosen as a project in BME 450, the semester-long senior capstone design course. The group developed a sensory-feedback device that was recently selected as a project abstract for the 2016 Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) Annual Meeting (see photos).

Another CPM-identified need fed into the year-long senior design course – an add-on that works with smaller-profile, pediatric bronchoscopes to improve suction capability. The design students who chose it believe their solution will change the way physicians perform the procedure. They are now soliciting physician feedback to gauge their receptiveness to this new approach, solidifying intellectual property, completing a second prototype, and beginning a commercialization strategy.

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In response to a need identified by CPMs, a BME 450 team designed an assistive device for MS patients that provides visual feedback of appropriate grip force. Team members Joshua Cockrum, Anastasia Ostrowski, Evan Chen, Megan White, and Nicole Bettè will share their device at BMES this fall.

cpm3This year’s CPM cohort grew to five, including Ayana Dambaeva, Renee Hanna, Jennifer Lee, Madhu Parigi, and Hongfeng Zhao. They investigated more than 20 clinical needs from BME 499 and identified a half-dozen new ones, ultimately narrowing their recommendations down to four. They include helping bedridden patients preserve their range of motion, enhancing the fit of CPAP machines for sleep apnea patients, improving the egg retrieval procedure for in vitro fertilization, and designing a disposable water heater/cooler to improve heat transfer in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

cpm2The CPMs also continued to develop key BME student resources. These include clinical handbooks that guide students in shadowing various departments, with information specific to each department’s functioning, special terminology, and clinical background. The interns are also producing videos that share best practices, expert insights, and lessons learned in needs finding, the design process, entrepreneurship, and career development for BME students. The videos are designed to supplement training provided in design classes and to provide exposure to the clinical environment that some students may not have the opportunity to experience.

Another activity undertaken by the CPMs was training to become operating room (OR) chaperones for BME students in the capstone design and needs finding courses. BME students working on projects related to unmet needs in the OR are able to observe procedures when an OR chaperone is present.

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Clinical Peer Mentors participate in the new Medical Device Sandbox, where BMEs and medical learners collaborate to investigate user errors associated with a medical device and brainstorm solutions to improve patient and user safety. Here they prototype a device to better support patients onto an exam table. Credit: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering.

Schmedlen says students drawn to the CPM experience tend to be those interested in going into the medical device industry who want exposure to the environment where the devices are used and the opportunity to explore how doctors and nurses think about them. Others plan to go to medical school but are eager to stay on the innovation path; they are interested in various specialties’ innovation needs.

The Clinical Peer Mentor program is supported by NIH grant 5R25EB019898-02.