Preparing the next Generation of Bioengineers

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Title of Abstract: Preparing the next Generation of Bioengineers

Name of Author: Rebecca Reiss
Author Company or Institution: New Mexico Tech
Author Title: Associate Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Bioinformatics, Cell Biology, General Biology, Genetics
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: Bioinformatics, Bioengineering, Nanotechnology, Biomaterials,

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: “How do we prepare students for careers that don’t yet exist?” This perplexing question was posed at the 2009 Vision and Change Conference. Bioengineering is a rapidly evolving discipline that has captured the interest many of our engineering students, who are searching for ways to apply engineering skills and concepts to medical and environmental issues. This requires a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving, but the ‘after Google’ generation has access to an exponentially increasing amount of information that can facilitate this type of critical thinking. But the Internet is a double-edged sword, since the availability of so much information can contribute to a common attitude among students: “I can look up anything, why do I need to learn this material?” This project is focused on the first undergraduate general biology course, Biology (Biol) 111, which serves both majors and non-majors. Recent changes in engineering requirements encourage engineering students to take Biol 111, which is now included in assessment protocols for engineering accreditation. Since students envision careers in bioengineering, our focus is to change Biol 111 with the goal to make the course relevant to engineering majors while continuing to address the needs of biology majors. The outcomes of this project include an increased understanding of both students and faculty of the rapidly changing interface between biology and engineering, and preparing students for upper division biology courses that include increased exposure to research projects.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The strategy involves the identification of research projects on campus that require engineering and biology expertise, then preparing activities that include information on these projects. Discussions with faculty involved in the development of a Bioengineering program revealed numerous topics that can be emphasized in Biol 111. These efforts began with the Spring 2013 course by merging descriptions of biological macromolecules with the perspective of biomaterials engineers. To a biologist a liposome is a self-assembling bilayer of phospholipid molecules, but to a bioengineer, the same structure is a nanoparticle. A faculty member in Chemical Engineering is working on targeting methods for drug delivery, so the topic has relevance to pre-medical students. This lesson is intended to interface with the Cell Biology course. For students who lean toward environmental issues, the results of a high-throughput DNA sequencing project focused on a microbial community capable of remediating toxic volatile organic carbon compounds provides an example of the application of bioinformatics to an environmental engineering problem. This was used to introduce lessons on information flow in cells and on bioinformatics. Efforts to change Biol 111 are linked to efforts to establish a minor in Biomaterials Engineering as well as a larger, inter-disciplinary Bioengineering program.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Students taking Biol 111 in the Spring 2013 semester were asked to complete Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) surveys three times during the course of the semester that included questions about their attitudes towards biology and if the inter-disciplinary made it easier for them to make connections between other classes. The results of these surveys were not conclusive, there were only 30 students in the class and only 22 responded to all survey questions. Overall, students felt they already know how to integrate their learning with other classes in the baseline survey and this increased only slightly as a result of the course. Clickers were considered to be an effective teaching tool and the discussions of research projects were well received. But the connection between these discussions, the associated clicker questions, and the concepts included on the tests was not clear to many students, as evidenced by their test scores. The main problem with the course that students noted were the tests, which include true/false, fill in the blank, multiple choice, and short essay questions. Additional research is necessary to identify the reasons for this disconnect.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Majors in disciplines other than biology are becoming increasingly interested in biological research projects and often query regarding the availability of research jobs. Interactions between faculty in Biology and Materials Science regarding the development of a biomaterials minor resulted in a research proposal to the National Institutes of Health that if funded, will include undergraduate research assistants. As the pipeline between biology and other disciplines increases, further collaborations are anticipated.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Students had difficulty with the connections between the research projects and the concepts taught in the course. Although concepts were emphasized during lectures and with clickers, the student’s understanding was not necessary obvious from test scores. This is likely to be related to the student’s attitudes about the availability of knowledge on the Internet. Two strategies are under consideration, first is to redesign the activities, the second is to change the traditional testing method used to evaluate student learning.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Currently the information is disseminated informally among faculty involved in the development of bioengineering programs. As discussions of research projects for Biol 111 are revised and new ones develop, they may be turned into case studies and submitted to the Bioscience Educators Network (BEN) and the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

Acknowledgements: The research projects described above were partially funded by the National Institute of Health through grants from the National Center for Research Resources (5P20RR016480-12) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (8P20GM103451-12).