U-M BME’s Rachael Schmedlen Shares Knowledge Abroad as Part of US Africa Teaching Fellows Program

The January workshop in Ethiopia was a five-day introduction to the engineering design process.

BME’s Rachael Schmedlen, Teaching Professor and Director of Academic Programs, College of Engineering, traveled to Ethiopia in January as part of the US Africa Teaching Fellows Program. Rice University, through its Rice360 global health initiative, organized the trip to support the Invention Education Network

“Rice360 and our partners in the network work together to support each other in curriculum development and best practices,” said Michelle Nodskov, Education Program Coordinator for the Rice360 Institute for Global Health Technologies. “We have received funding from donors to conduct Faculty Development Workshops at our partner institutions in Africa. These workshops are typically hosted in sets of two – the first workshop is on Active Learning, and the second is on Needs Finding and Applying the Engineering Design Process. Our team has found that typical African university courses consist mainly of lengthy lectures that do not lend themselves well to information retention. Our US faculty facilitators travel to Africa to share best practices in teaching with African faculty with the idea of building lasting relationships that can lead to lasting international collaborations and further the education development of Engineering students everywhere.”

“They have trained about 20 U.S. engineering faculty members and a similar number of African faculty members as workshop facilitators to encourage faculty at African institutions to adopt active learning in engineering design for their students,” Dr. Schmedlen added. “The U.S. instructors who participate come from various concentrations in engineering and bring their classroom experiences to the sessions.”

The January workshop in Ethiopia was a five-day introduction to the engineering design process. “Within the five days, we went through the entire engineering design process, so we had the faculty members organize into teams,” Dr. Schmedlen said. “We offered a couple of different types of projects, and the African faculty selected the project they wanted to work on. We reviewed defining  the problem, creating design requirements, brainstorming, evaluating concepts, designing, prototyping and testing–all of the steps that form the basis of our capstone design courses. However, in the program, we did it all in a week for the faculty members.”

Dr. Schmedlen said that many African universities are still following the traditional educational model of straight lecturing, so they generally do not incorporate active learning exercises in the classroom. “We’re trying to encourage them to make this change,” she said. “This particular group at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology (AAIT) attended the active learning workshop a few months before. I think that we were very fortunate in that the leadership there really does value moving toward an active learning and engineering design process.” 

The team conducted needs-finding by visiting one of the hospitals in Ethiopia to talk to clinicians, doctors, and techs. “We had the chance to see their two new CT scanners, with a goal of teaching them how to identify projects,” Dr. Schmedlen said. “If they learn how to identify projects, they have more opportunities to partner with potential clients, whether clinicians, industry or not-for-profit organizations. Once this happens, the educators can create design projects or proposals and then integrate them into their courses through teaching.” 

Dr. Schmedlen became involved with the Rice360 program in the summer of 2021, when the call went out for applications. “They conducted interviews and selected U.S. faculty members from all engineering disciplines, and then they ran a training workshop at Rice in November of 2021,” she said. “But because of the pandemic, it’s taken a couple of years to ramp up and send people abroad.”

The program offered Dr. Schmedlen an incredible experience, from both professional and personal perspectives. “I have been teaching the senior design capstone course here at Michigan for nearly 20 years, and I have taught a needs-finding course,” she said. “Because of running the clinical peer mentors program, I felt my greatest contribution was in the needs-finding area. Being able to draw on my teaching experiences allowed me to instruct the faculty regarding how you want to go about conducting observations and how you want to then take those observations to identify unmet clinical needs that could potentially be design projects,” she added.

One challenge the group encountered focused on the constraints of resources, “For example, when it comes to prototyping, in the U.S., we have all types of 3D printers, fancy machine shops, laser cutters and all of this technology within our reach,” she said. “They have a couple of basic 3D printers and a laser cutter, but it’s new, and so we were trying to teach them to develop low-fidelity prototypes with inexpensive materials that can demonstrate proof-of-concept and initial testing.”

“Getting to experience a completely different culture was very inspiring,” she added. “I had never been to the other side of the Atlantic or to Africa before, so everything was a new experience for me. The people in Ethiopia were so incredibly friendly and excited to share the history of their country with us,” she added. “The faculty we met inspired me because they were participating on their break between semesters and were doing this on their own time, just because of their quest for knowledge. It was clear that they were excited to try to recreate these lessons in their classroom.”