Our bioengineering program includes five technical track (approach) areas: cell and tissue engineering, therapeutics engineering, biomechanics, computational and systems biology, and imaging and sensing. Each track is composed of fifteen engineering credit hours, and students must select by the end of their sophomore year a track to pursue. Frequently, students are uncertain about their track decision due to limited exposure to the different bioengineering areas at this stage in their career. For example, a student interested in cancer may assume that the cell and tissue engineering track is the most logical fit to study cancer but not realize the potential for cancer-related work in other areas of bioengineering such as imaging and computation. To assist our students in making an informed decision on a technical track while introducing the field of bioengineering to freshman, we modified the delivery of a freshman seminar course. Previously, the course was taught as a seminar in which guest lecturers (faculty) presented their research. We modified the course to (1) inspire students by focusing on grand challenges, (2) engage students in their learning, and (3) engage upper-level students as mentors in the process. In the modified course, students worked in teams, guided by mentors and instructors, to investigate how each of the five bioengineering tracks (approaches) could be used to investigate the grand challenge.
In spring 2017, the reimagined course was offered for the first time to the freshman cohort (1 day/week; 1 credit hour). Following this offering, the course was modified based on lessons learned to better accommodate the structure and needs of the students and faculty and offered again in spring 2018 to the freshman cohort (2 days/week; 1 credit hour). Both offerings focused on healthcare grand challenges with the first offering (67 students) reviewing three challenges and the second offering (46 students) exploring four challenges. The three healthcare grand challenges common to both offerings were: global health/infectious disease, cancer, and neurological disease; in year two, cardiovascular disease was added to the course to reflect the department’s increased interest in this area. In the first two weeks, we introduced the course and information literacy. After this, the general structure for each challenge included: (1) introduction to the challenge (week 1), (2) guest lecturer – current research (week 2), (3) training in a supporting topic, such as ethics (week 3), and (4) delivery of report/start new challenge (week 4). To investigate these challenges, students worked in groups of 3-4 to identify and document in a report how each of the five track (approaches) could be used to investigate the challenge. Mentors and instructors facilitated their progress; prior to teams submitting the final paper for each challenge, the teams received feedback on the draft paper from their mentors and/or instructors. At the end of the semester, students selected their favorite challenge and created a conference style poster. The poster was presented in a poster session in which the mentors, other students, and faculty served as the visitors/conference attendees. To determine the effect of the course on student’s track interest and confidence in literature searching, we administered an end of the semester survey to determine pre-class and post-class differences; a comment option was also incorporated into the survey.
Results from both years reveal changes in student track interest (pre-and post-course), especially in some tracks (approaches). Response rates were 57% in the first year and 67% in the second year. In the first year, there was a 15% increase (overall class, not paired student) in student interest (most interesting on Likert scale) in the computational and systems biology track, and in the second year, there was a 15% increase (overall class, not paired student) in student interest (most interesting on Likert scale) in therapeutics engineering. Surveys in both years also revealed improved confidence in literature searching, 55% in year 1 and 61% in year 2. Student comments revealed they appreciated learning how different tracks (approaches) could be used to tackle a healthcare grand challenge. Comments also indicated that the structure of the course promote increased literature searching techniques.
The largest challenge experienced in year 1 (scheduling related) was removed in year 2 by adding a scheduled discussion period. Because student’s tracks (approaches) interest continues to change due to the experiences in the course suggests the students are using the course content to make an informed track decision. As student’s review scientific literature for each challenge, it is expected that there would be an increase in confidence in literature searching/review. A future study we are considering is to determine track satisfaction and retention (in track) in the junior and senior year; if these results are positive, it would further suggest that providing students information to make an informed track decision is beneficial in promoting student progress towards degree and satisfaction.
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