Building a Better BME with Problem-Based Learning

Helluva Engineer

Building a Better BME with Problem-Based Learning

One student says his problem-based class has been integral to his education

In the biomedical engineering (BME) department at Georgia Tech, a commitment to improving people’s lives through technology is built into every course. BME students are quickly introduced to the idea of delivering solutions to real-world clinical problems, which taps into the reason many of us selected this major: We want to be part of a collaboration that solves serious health care problems in a multidisciplinary way.

As a first-year biomedical engineering student, I worried about how I was going to apply my engineering knowledge. Sure, I can tell you about stress-strain curves, write pages of code, analyze deformable bodies or apply Bernoulli’s equation, but my biggest concern was always learning to channel that knowledge into an idea that could make or break a research endeavor. My worry began to fade by my second semester, though, when I took my first problem-based learning design class.

Here, BME students were organized into teams of six. Each was given a major problem to consider, a set of deadlines and a goal to contribute a legitimate idea or solution to the problem. To solve it, teams could take on any approach, from building a mechanical device to developing a new type of sensor. There is no better way to grow confidence in handling the research and development process than to brainstorm, plan, manage and implement an innovation you and your team created from scratch.

The problem-based learning rooms are a critical component of these design classes. Whiteboards are on every wall of the work room, and an experienced facilitator is always available to answer questions and help keep the teams on track. In addition, professors are encouraging and focused on asking questions that guide the team’s advancement. In the beginning of the semester, most classroom time is spent discussing research and making lists on the walls with relevant information. By the end, the whiteboard space is used to find creative solutions to issues standing in the way. Questions like “Why did this fail?”, “How strong would it need to be to prevent rupture?” or “How do we calculate rotational acceleration from shear force?” cannot be solved easily. The most motivating factor, however, is that those questions (once answered) can be incorporated into the design that team is building to solve the given problem.

Another defining factor in problem-based learning is the use of presentations and papers to illustrate work and progress. Since every team member is responsible for oral presentations, the group is only as strong as its weakest member. As a result, everyone is equally invested in making sure each group member has a solid understanding of the project. Students learn that working in cooperation with each other is paramount. Emotional intelligence, patience and communication are just as important to research as innovation, technical expertise and creativity.  

In my first semester taking a problem-based learning class as a second-year student at Georgia Tech, my team’s topic was concussions, which we eventually narrowed down to detecting concussions in football players. With eight group members in one room, the white boards were soon covered with all sorts of potential ideas, from an on-field camera tracking system to a blood test based on biomarkers released on impact. Our first major deadline forced us to focus on just three of our solutions, and another team member and I presented our ideas to a panel of students.

Based on the panel’s feedback, our group had to narrow down the three solutions to one, and from there develop a mathematical model that would solve a potential problem in the idea’s development. My team hoped to develop a silicone helmet sensor that would detect force impacts at different angles and translate it to known values for linear or rotational acceleration that cause concussion on the human brain. Our biggest challenge was using principles of deformable bodies to calculate the relationship between a force impact at some angle and the corresponding rotational acceleration. In our next big presentation, my team and I had to explain this relationship to another student panel, which included a graduate student working in the field of deformable bodies. With the new feedback from that presentation, we developed a physical mold of the silicone sensors at 10 times the actual size and performed tests on it, dropping all sorts of different weights from a known height to see if the sensor would work as it was predicted to.

Several professors in the biomedical engineering department went out of their way to help us, even allowing us to use a wet lab when it was needed. In the end my team and I created a mathematical model, tested a fabric and silicone prototype, and gave another oral presentation to demonstrate our solution. Learning what it took to solve a real-world problem from hypothesis to solution taught me more about scientific research, problem solving, conflict resolution, and diligence than any class I have ever taken.

Internships, co-ops, and careers all require an engineer to apply his or her knowledge in unconventional and innovative ways, and any biomedical engineer who has taken a problem-based learning class will be readily prepared to take on those challenges. By participating in classes that require well-communicated solutions based on technical skills, research, creativity, and teamwork, we learn how to translate theory into practice. Problem-based learning is an excellent introduction to real-world research and development, and it has been one of the most motivating classes in my college career.