Incubators are common among entrepreneurs to nurture and develop a new product, application, or business idea. Assistant Professor Aileen Huang-Saad is also applying the concept to biomedical engineering practice – and to engineering education – through a novel “instructional incubator” and series of short, experiential courses.
The goal of the instructional incubator is multifaceted: To expose undergraduate and graduate students to diverse career opportunities in and outside academia and, for those who are considering academic careers, to help them gain teaching and curriculum development skills. Employers, too, benefit from BME job candidates who have acquired a set of capabilities rare among BME programs.
“Colleges and universities are realizing the growing need to train a workforce that is innovative and entrepreneurial-minded,” says Huang-Saad, the Department’s first tenure-track faculty member in engineering education who also co-founded the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship. “many programs are more broadly emphasizing hands-on, team- and problem-based learning to increase student engagement and development.”
“Colleges and universities are realizing the growing need to train a workforce that is innovative and entrepreneurial-minded”
Huang-Saad was inspired in part by her own non-traditional path, leaving academia to work in industry and returning as teaching faculty. Along the way, she observed plenty of changes —
limited numbers of faculty positions, increased competition for funding, and many BME and other engineering students who don’t necessarily want to move into more traditional faculty positions. “We need to prepare them to for a multitude of careers, not just academic research,” she says.
Many students agree, reporting that finding jobs can be challenging and, once they do begin working, they notice a gap between what they’ve learned in school and industry needs and expectations.
Huang-Saad believes the gap in part results from the fact that “students have to take many courses in other disciplines – physics, math, biology, for example – before they take ‘BME’ courses.” Often, that’s not until their junior year. “And then we have limited time to help them synthesize and integrate all of that material and learn about the actual field of BME. We’re not doing as well as we could be,” she says.
Committed to transforming how engineering programs teach, Huang-Saad wanted to do something to bring more hands-on courses to the first- and second-year program. Yet, the facts remain: Faculty tend to come from varied disciplines, often outside of BME, and many have never worked in industry or been mentored as instructors. Few have experience guiding students through the project-based, interactive courses that might provide an edge in the job market.
The situation led her to ask an important question: How do we get discipline-based engineering faculty – faculty who trained as engineers – to understand more about student learning so that they can impact engineering education? “How do we capitalize on the wealth of talent we have here at the university right now?” she asks.
Capitalizing on the wealth of talent
The answer, at least in part, lies in the new incubator course (BME 499/599), in which junior and senior undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, and faculty conceive of new first- and second-year courses. These one-credit “BME-in-Practice” courses help synthesize BME material and impart important professional engineering skills.
The incubator, first taught in Fall 2017, teaches students about learning, including learning theories, pedagogy, instructional design, constraints when developing curricula, and more. For their final project, student teams develop a curriculum for a one-credit experiential course for first- and second-year students. The following semester, incubator participants, a.k.a. “apprentices,” are given the opportunity to teach the courses they’ve developed.
The resulting courses, developed in Fall 2017 included:
- Introduction to Neural Engineering and Modeling
- Building a Tumor, an Introduction to Tissue Engineering
- Introduction to Medical Product Design Iteration and Validation
- Introduction to Medical Product Design, Prototyping and Testing (previously titled: Design “Crash” Course: Computer-Aided Design, Rapid Prototyping, and Failure Analysis)
- Biomechanical Design and Rapid Prototyping
- Computational Cell Signaling: Roadmap to Drug Development
Three of the six courses were taught in the 2018 winter semester.
Offering the courses in a one-credit format enabled students to more easily fit one or more into their already heavy first- and second-year schedules. “Having these students participate in BME courses sooner helps them develop a cohort, a community, and get a better sense of what they can do with a BME degree,” says Huang-Saad.
First-year student Raahul Ravi took two of the new short courses, Introduction to Neural Engineering and Introduction to Tissue Engineering, with the aim of gaining “more Biomedical Engineering experience early on in my undergraduate career. It would take several years for me to reach the point where I could take the full courses on these topics, so I signed up for these to see if the areas covered interest me,” he says.
They did. “Taking the incubator courses has shown me more of what a professional in Neural engineering and Tissue/Tumor Engineering studies and works on. I’m still on the fence about what I want to do after undergrad – grad school, work in industry, etc. – but I know much more about the different career fields open to me with my education in BME after taking them,” he adds.
“Taking the incubator courses has shown me more of what a professional in Neural engineering and Tissue/Tumor Engineering studies and works on.”Raahul Ravi
Learning about learning
The incubator followed a carefully planned curriculum. Each week students spent one class session focused on learning and pedagogy and the second session working in teams to create the new courses. Students also attended master classes, where they observed an experienced instructor and reflected on their observations. They interviewed industry professionals about their work and expectations when hiring students, and they interviewed faculty not only at U-M but across the country.
During the second part of the course, BME Assistant Professor Kelly Arnold, a systems biologist, taught a class in which she asked students to apply ordinary differential equations to a particular problem, receptor-ligand binding, and model the process using MATLAB. Once students completed the assignment, they reflected on the experience to help them better understand the difference between novices and experts.
Finally, during the last part of the course, students completed their short-course curricula, following two key criteria: First, courses had to integrate at least two disciplines, for example, math and biology or electrical engineering and molecular biology. And second, courses had to include the acquisition of a tangible skill, such as CAD, Autodesk Fusion 360, or LabVIEW, that students could use toward solving critical BME problems.
Gaining a competitive advantage
Building specific skills was critical to the BME-in-Practice concept. “At the end of the day,” says Huang-Saad, “you can’t get a job by just telling someone you’re a great critical thinker; you need to be able to plug in and add value from the minute you hit the ground.”
Second-year student Regan Bernstein agrees. “As a sophomore, I didn’t really have any technical skills that would set me apart from anyone else bombarding the companies at the Career Fair. In BME, students don’t get experience with lab work, 3D modeling, or many other vital skills companies are looking for until later in their college career. These modules gave me the skills I needed to comfortably speak with recruiters and confidently say I had the skills they were looking for.” Bernstein hopes that by taking the courses, she’ll have set herself up for “meaningful and successful” internship opportunities early on.
Not surprisingly, the incubator earned high marks from the students who participated, with evaluation scores near 5.0 in several areas, including course excellence, advancement of students’ subject matter understanding, increased student abilities, and whetting students’ appetites for learning more about the subject matter.
The incubator course gave recently-hired Lecturer Barry Belmont a more nuanced understanding of teaching and learning, helping him further ground his “own teaching in theoretical framework mentalities” to better guide students as they internalize new material in conjunction with new behaviors and connect those ideas and behaviors with previously learned concepts. “The incubator class has led me to other teaching seminars and engineering education opportunities, which are both career aspirations and goals,” he adds.
Doctoral candidate Karlo Malaga took the incubator because he intends to pursue a career in teaching after earning his doctorate. The opportunity to “design and develop a course from the ground up, [and] to actually launch and teach it is truly unique, and I think it will strengthen my application when it comes to applying for future jobs.”
Malaga found the experience, in a word, he says, “humbling. I found out first-hand just how much work can go into creating a course. By far the most enjoyable part of the experience for me was seeing the course that I had spent all semester working on come to life.”
Malaga taught Introduction to Neural Engineering and also presented his incubator work at an American Society for Engineering Education regional conference. He describes the incubator and teaching experiences as a turning point. “At the end of the day, it reaffirmed to me that I was on the ‘right’ career path since I enjoyed every aspect of teaching and developing the course.”
“…it reaffirmed to me that I was on the ‘right’ career path since I enjoyed every aspect of teaching and developing the course.”Karlo Malaga
Huang-Saad is now working with School of Education graduate student Jacqueline Handley and BME graduate student Cassandra Woodcock to conduct qualitative research to evaluate the impact of the incubator model on undergraduate and graduate students and industry participants, including pre- and post-course surveys, focus groups, and interviews.
Iterative design for curriculum and faculty development
Going forward, the incubator will serve as an iterative design tool for the BME curriculum. “Because we’re constantly reaching out to stakeholders about their needs, expectations, and opportunities for BME students, our students will always be at the leading edge of what technologies are being used and what questions are being asked,” says Huang-Saad. “In effect, we’re creating a sustainable process for integrating career guidance into our undergraduate and graduate programs.”
The incubator also has the potential to become a valuable resource for new faculty, helping them better understand the Department’s curriculum and offering direction and mentorship as they think about new courses to develop and new ways to teach existing and core courses.
When asked about her vision for success of the incubator, Huang-Saad lays out the following scenario: “What I’d most like to see is, when employers in industry, government, or academia are looking for BMEs to hire, they’re going to look to U-M graduates. Not only because our students are incredible interdisciplinary researchers, but also because many of them will have had an opportunity to gain new skills and learn something about teaching – they’ve had a mentored approach to helping others learn.”
“What I’d most like to see is, when employers in industry, government, or academia are looking for BMEs to hire, they’re going to look to U-M graduates.”Aileen Huang-Saad