Can an educational laboratory space in Biomedical Engineering or Bioengineering departments be used for both education as well as innovation? How can you encourage independent learning in laboratory course work while also providing an opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship? In this paper, I will demonstrate how the Bioengineering educational laboratory and website at the University of Pennsylvania, along with its undergraduate laboratory curriculum, promotes independent learning by students and encourages innovation.
The laboratory itself houses equipment and supplies for work with electronics, microcontrollers, mechanical testing and rapid prototyping, chemistry and chemical analysis, human physiology, animal studies, and molecular/synthetic biology. From freshman year through junior year, students take lab classes where they are expected to find and learn how to use the necessary material by themselves. A website which maintains a full inventory of materials and their locations is provided, along with a full list of equipment with documentation. Equipment guides for lab courses are tied to the equipment on the website, rather than to the lab manual. Tutorials are also available on the website to quickly bring students up-to-speed with specific protocols and procedures, which are again, not part of the lab manual. Pre-lab exercises encourage students to come prepared to their lab session.
The laboratory classes are heavily project based, requiring students to access the laboratory outside of regular class hours. Consequently, the lab provides extended hours into the late evening and on weekends. In addition, because of the varied courses going on through the semester in the laboratory, permanent set-ups are not possible. Students must be able to put together experiments, debug issues, and take the experiments down by themselves. Faculty, lab staff, and teaching assistants act merely as guides, rather than traditional instructors.
This emphasis of the lab for all project-based work lends itself to becoming a hub for students to network, work on assignments outside of lab work, and use the lab for other extra-curricular activities. Since the laboratory moved to this configuration, it is being used by students developing projects for clubs, competitions, and quite regularly, start-up ventures. The ability to work on electronics, use rapid prototyping tools, as well as work in fume hoods and cell culture hoods, all within the same facility encourages a unique type of “making”. I will also provide additional thoughts on encouraging community within the lab. Student feedback to this laboratory model has been positive, especially in comparing this model to traditional educational laboratories, and to open lab spaces with less organization.
Are you a researcher? Would you like to cite this paper?
Visit the ASEE document repository at
for more tools and easy citations.