Bioengineering earns National Science Foundation grant to revolutionize undergraduate education


Bioengineering will integrate more clinical and research experiences into its undergraduate curriculum, thanks to a new $2 million NSF award.

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The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Bioengineering will revolutionize its undergraduate curriculum, its students’ clinical and research experiences, and its faculty members’ approaches to teaching, thanks to a $2 million REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments (RED) grant from the National Science Foundation.

“All of these changes will be driven by a single principle: No solution without a need,” said Rashid Bashir, head of the Bioengineering department at Illinois.

Too often in engineering education, technical skills are elevated while societal perspectives are under-appreciated, according to Bashir. As a result, bioengineers around the world are often unprepared to wrestle with and address the societal implications of their work.

In other words, engineers tend to focus on the technical challenge, which can reduce their positive impact on the problem they mean to tackle. They can be prone to creating solutions to needs that don’t exist — or that only exist among a relatively small or privileged population. Thus, the watchword, “no solution without a need.”

“This attitude represents the only way we are going to improve medicine and human health. It’s the only way we’re going to deliver better care to more people at a lower cost,” Bashir said, who is also co-chair of the curriculum committee for the new engineering-based Carle Illinois College of Medicine at Illinois and member of the task force guiding the college’s development.

“In every technical conversation, we need to be asking ourselves and our students: What are the real human needs? What consequences might a new medicine or medical technique create? How do class, race, and other factors impact people’s access to and response to a health care solution?”

These significant changes to the department’s curriculum will not come at the expense of students’ disciplinary expertise or their skills as engineers. “We’re still going to train some of the world’s best bioengineers. Our students’ technical skills will remain unsurpassed. But they will learn these skills in a new context — with a focus on aging, perhaps, or the cancer community, or some other pressing need,” said Jenny Amos, a teaching associate professor of Bioengineering who is a principal investigator on the new NSF project.

With support from NSF’s Revolutionizing Engineering Departments program, Illinois’ Bioengineering department will shift from a “technology-focused curriculum” to a “need-focused curriculum” over the next five years. This work will include:

  • Integrating clinical and research experiences — which many bioengineering students already take advantage of — much more deeply into the curriculum.
  • Translating medical assessment practices — such as using direct observation and immediate feedback in tandem with more traditional tests and projects — to better unify classroom experiences and clinical experiences.
  • Organizing faculty into communities of practice, helping them to learn new teaching techniques.

“Holistic, immersion-driven learning experiences are typically only found at small schools. What makes this effort so exciting is that we will be demonstrating that these types of experiences can be scaled to impact thousands of students, enabling engineers to more effectively improve healthcare.” said Geoffrey Herman, a teaching assistant professor of Computer Science at Illinois and a principal investigator on the new NSF project.

More on the NSF's recent REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments awards:

“Revolutionized” Department of Bioengineering to dovetail with new Carle Illinois College of Medicine

The Department of Bioengineering’s shift to a need-focused curriculum will have impact across the College of Engineering and beyond. The new Carle Illinois College of Medicine and ongoing research collaborations with doctors at Carle Health System, OSF HealthCare, and Mayo Clinic will all benefit.

“We are responsible for training holistic innovators, engineers, and doctors—people who, at their very core, understand the community and ethical needs and concerns that govern their work. New ways of teaching those students are required and must embrace a need-focused approach,” said Andreas Cangellaris, dean of the College of Engineering.

“Solving problems to improve care is exactly what we intend to do through the Carle Illinois College of Medicine,” said Matthew Gibb, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer for Carle. “This funding will allow students training to be physician scientists to focus on real-world challenges.”

Cangellaris is chair of the committee that is currently identifying the inaugural dean for the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. This new College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will be the first in the world with a curriculum designed to train doctors at the intersection of engineering and medicine.

These efforts are particularly timely, as a $55 million renovation of Everitt Laboratory is underway. The renovation will create the first permanent home for the Department of Bioengineering.

“To develop a new bioengineering curriculum, a new medical curriculum, and a new physical home for the bioengineering department simultaneously is a unique and powerful opportunity,” Cangellaris said. “We are excited to make the most of it.”

Need-based bioengineering in action

Several programs and initiatives at Illinois already use a need-based approach to teaching and research. Here are some examples:

“We congratulate the principal investigators in Bioengineering at Illinois for this award,” said John Vozenilek, M.D., vice president and chief medical officer for simulation at the Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center and OSF Healthcare System and member of the UI Bioengineering adjunct clinical faculty. “OSF's and Jump's contribution to the redesign of health care engineering is to open the doors to the house of medicine to engineers who can transform the future of healthcare in its focus on patient wellness and access to compassionate competence.”

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This story was published July 13, 2016.