Revolutionizing Undergraduate Bioengineering Education


As a freshman Illinois Bioengineering (BioE) student four years ago, Gabs Dupont recalls feeling disconnected from her major. She and her classmates had only one introductory bioengineering course their first semester and then had to wait until sophomore year to take additional bioengineering classes.

“I felt unengaged with the department and didn’t feel like I was doing anything bioengineering related, especially compared to many of my friends in other majors who were taking classes already in their major,” said Dupont, a current BioE graduate student.

With a $2 million NSF RED Grant, the Bioengineering at Illinois faculty are innovating undergraduate curriculum and programs to produce students who are ready to address real-world needs with revolutionary ideas and solutions.

Fast forward to the present and bioengineering students now take a series of project-based classes their first two years that help them understand their field and career options, select a technical area of concentration, and perhaps more importantly, understand the medical and societal needs that require bioengineering-inspired solutions.

“We are revolutionizing our curriculum by refocusing it around clinical needs.”

Dr. Kelly Cross, Bioengineering

These new courses are part of a University of Illinois Bioengineering curriculum overhaul funded by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) program. At the time the RED grant was awarded in mid-2016, Illinois was the only bioengineering department to receive the funding, allowing the Urbana-Champaign campus to take a leadership position in shaping bioengineering education.

“We are revolutionizing our curriculum by refocusing it around clinical needs,” said Illinois Bioengineering Research Scientist Kelly Cross, who is helping department faculty design the new and revised courses. “[Our curriculum] is broad enough to accommodate the students’ interests while giving them the core technical content so they can have transferrable skills.”

The new bioengineering curriculum is designed around the simple message: No solution without a need. This needs-driven focus enables the department to train its students so they can identify real-world problems and ultimately design better solutions.

As part of their sophomore-level clinical immersion, BioE undergraduate students observed medical residents train in the Simulation Center at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.

In practice, the curriculum now provides first-year students with three courses (BioE 199, 120, and 198) that introduce them to the BioE field and identify how the department’s technical tracks help address the grand challenges in medicine, all while training them to use some key engineering techniques and processes.

The first class BioE freshmen take in the fall semester is the Undergraduate Open Seminar course (BioE 199), which provides an overview of the field. Students complete several hands-on analytical projects like using a pulse oximeter to record their blood oxygenation at different times of the day and taking magnified images of everyday objects and living organisms with their smartphone. They then learn to analyze their data.

“Students are exposed to physiology and acquiring data and they perform some base level of analysis,” said Marci Pool, a Bioengineering teaching associate professor and one of the course instructors. “They might not understand all the theory behind what they were doing but it’s a good introduction to these things, especially since they will see [some of the techniques] again in upper-level courses.”

Associate teaching professor Jenny Amos discusses the major players in reimagining the bioengineering curriculum. These changes were made with the goal of creating engaged and well-rounded students.

According to senior Pierce Hadley, who helped coordinate the 199 course and its hands-on assignments, the most important thing was for the freshman to become comfortable using MatLab and Fourier Transforms. “If they see something they want to learn more about later, they should feel confident to acquire data and know how to analyze it,” Hadley said. “At this point, they’re learning how to think and approach problems and have the confidence to figure out how to solve problems.”

“They’re learning how to think and approach problems and have the confidence to figure out how to solve problems.”

Pierce Hadley, BioE Student Mentor

Freshman Tom Romanchek certainly gained that confidence and he’s now excited to experiment with tools like MatLab in other classes and projects. “My classmates and I are thinking: ‘How can we use this to do even more things with the data around us in the natural world.’”

Romanchek and his classmates will have the opportunity to receive more data analytics training while strengthening their MatLab skills next semester when they take the new Biomedical Data Analysis (BioE 198) course. According to Professor Mike Insana, who developed the lab-based course, the students will learn the basic elements of matrix algebra and probability and statistics by solving practical problems from an array of biomedical and engineering topics.

Working partly with modeling data they acquired on major organ systems from the fall's 199 course, the students can design algorithms to further study those systems. "For example, they’ll be able to program those systems and play with them to see what effect different medication would do to the system," said Bioengineering Associate Teaching Professor Jenny Amos, who is also one of the principal investigators on the RED grant.

While the students are honing their data analysis skills and proficiency in the 198 course, they are also gaining valuable insights on which one of the five technical areas, or tracks, they want to pursue—biomechanics, cell and tissue engineering, therapeutics engineering, computational and systems biology, and imaging and sensing—through a revised Introduction to Bioengineering course (BioE 120).

The course is organized around grand challenges in medicine, including cancer, neuroengineering, the cardiovascular system, and gastrointestinal and infectious diseases. Through a series of faculty presentations and team projects, the students learn how each technical track option is applied to address those challenges.

"A lot of students come in thinking they are interested in cancer so they want to go into cell and tissue engineering," noted Karin Jensen, a Bioengineering assistant teaching professor and 120 instructor. "They don't realize, for example, that imaging and computational tracks can also be applied to cancer."

Sophomore Monika Kizerwetter, an Illinois Cancer Scholar, is one of those students. She took the 120 course last year and appreciated learning about how various technical areas can be applied to understanding, detecting, and treating the disease.

Freshmen take two hands-on courses that introduce them to the bioengineering field while giving them a strong technical foundation.

"I'm looking at cancer from the cell and tissue perspective but I liked how this class enabled me to look at cancer from all different perspectives, including biomechanics and computation," said Kizerwetter. "This course made me broaden my horizons."

Added senior Pierce Hadley, who served as a course mentor last year for a freshman team that explored how all the bioengineering technical areas could address the parasite that causes elephantiasis, "We want the students to be better informed when they pick their track."

Sophomore Faisal Masood considers the 120 course a success. "After taking [the class], I still wanted to do the cell and tissue engineering track, but I felt more informed and confident about my decision," he said.

By the time students enter their second year, the shift toward a needs-focused curriculum is clearly demonstrated in the new Bioengineering Career Immersion (BioE 200) course, in which sophomores interact with physicians, nurses, technicians, and paramedics in various clinical settings at Carle Foundation Hospital.

The sophomore-level BioE 200 course, where students tour various clinical settings at Carle, helps students better understand the health system, the needs of the patient, and the needs of the practitioners so they can someday design better solutions addressing those needs.

“When we send students into the clinic, it’s not because they’re supposed to be a doctor, it’s because they’re supposed to better understand the health system, the needs of the patient, the needs of the practitioners they are shadowing, and design better solutions for those needs,” said Professor Amos.

During all the tours and shadow opportunities, Carle personnel explained their work setting and pointed out problems that bioengineers could help solve. For a final project, student teams identified specific problems and proposed solutions at a poster session held at Carle.

Faisal Masood, Eamon Bracht, Craig Soares, Heather Zelko, and Ashley Mitchell proposed a platform that would make it easier for paramedics to safely transport obese patients after learning about the difficulties an ambulance crew encountered with heavy patients. The team set their sights on developing a less expensive solution to the specialized vehicles and gurneys that already exist. Masood may continue working on this project as an independent study class in collaboration with Carle next year.

According to course helper Gabs Dupont, one of the most popular tours was the Carle Sim Center, where bioengineering students observed Carle residents train in an emergency room scenario. Carle physician Mark Johnson, an Illinois graduate (BS BioE LAS, 2003), briefs the residents on the condition of the patient--a lifelike mannequin--and they immediately run through a protocol to stabilize her, ultimately inserting a breathing tube through the mouth and into the trachea and connecting her to monitoring equipment.

Graduate student Gabs Dupont reflects on her experience as an undergraduate student in the Bioengineering Department and how the entry level classes have changed.

Having the bioengineering students observe various aspects of the clinic and hospital setting is beneficial, said Dr. Johnson, because they are a good introduction to the medical environment, especially for those who will someday work in industry.

“If you want to make a big, meaningful change that will stick, you have to understand the environment, the problem that you are trying to solve, and the tasks that the individuals are trying to do,” Johnson said. “I want the [bioengineering students] to understand the complexity of the environment and [understand] there are a lot of opportunities for improvement.”

The BioE 200 course had a big impact on sophomore Kendall Junger, who started the course undecided about her future career plans. After experiencing the clinical immersion, she has decided to pursue medicine and plans to attend medical school in two years.

“I want to reiterate that actually going to Carle is what I valued most about the course," Junger said. "I’ve talked to a lot of other students, too, and they all have great things to say about being able to go into a medical environment and hear firsthand from doctors and nurses about problems that they have that we might be able to fix one day as bioengineers.”

* * *

We make it possible for our Bioengineering students to thrive by developing innovative education programs and providing scholarship opportunities. Strategic investments in our students, faculty, and facilities allow us to recruit and retain the brightest minds.

Your investment will change lives. Please join us in supporting the next generation of Illini engineers.

Make a gift