We need to equip biomedical engineering graduates with the mindset and skillset to tackle critical problems. What better way to practice this than to ask them to take on real biomedical problems in the classroom?
By S. Balakrishna Pai, Director of Instructional Laboratories, Georgia Institute of Technology
Recently, I’ve made cancer the focus of Georgia Tech’s Quantitative Engineering Physiology Course. The global impact of this disease is clear and the recently launched “Cancer Moonshot” initiative makes it a timely topic. We challenge our students to own their laboratory experiences and engineer strategies to interfere with the physiological processes that lead to cancer. Student teams develop their own comprehensive research proposals, which then become the foundation for experimental validation in the lab and employing relevant techniques.
Undergraduate engineering and science curricula invariably incorporate laboratory courses to give students the opportunity to learn techniques as well as reflect on some of the topics that they are exposed to in lectures. Often, these courses require students to carry out laboratory procedures that we as instructors decide are important to learn. These techniques may be valuable if the students use them in their future work. But what if they don’t?
A more productive approach is to establish a laboratory learning environment that gives students more control over what they learn – that fosters skills that will be transferable to the workplace, such as problem-finding, problem-solving, critical analysis, and strategizing. This was the motivation for me to transform the cell-based Quantitative Engineering Physiology course from a lab course to a problem-driven research experience.
The benefit and challenge of student ownership is divergence. Divergence can lead to unexpected solutions, but it can also tax specific resources such as a faculty member’s time. It is the familiar trade-off between the efficiency of standardization and the generative nature of the extraordinary. I want my students to be able to pursue the extraordinary.
For my research course to be an effective medium to train students in entrepreneurial mindset, a conceptual change accompanied by restructuring of the course was warranted. One fundamental transformation was to give students greater autonomy in finding problems, developing methodologies, and executing strategies. With basic information and minimal skills, the students can venture into challenging tasks on their own. This, in fact, is where the transformation happens, allowing students to develop their entrepreneurial mindsets through problem-finding and problem-solving processes that sequentially instill the 3C’s.
A key to the success of the course was establishing a very engaging atmosphere from start to finish. We want an inquisitive culture. Here is how I structured the five modules to create student ownership:
- Modules 1-3: Knowledge-building through weekly lectures, investigating cancer databases, and making journal club presentations. Students are also trained in basic experimental techniques and offered opportunities to reproduce published experiments.
- Module 4: Identifying a problem for experimentation, preparing a research proposal with background, hypothesis, specific aims, research strategy, expected outcomes, and a timeline.
- Module 5: Hands-on experimentation related to the project, data analysis, and poster presentation, culminating in a final individual report.
The progression of the students through the modules allows them to systematically develop an entrepreneurial mindset. In the early modules, it is critical that the class acquire enough information to identify a problem. As one of the great entrepreneurs of our time, Steve Jobs, said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” The students need to have a thorough understanding of what information is out there in the problem area to help them to formulate the right questions and appropriate experimental strategy.
For the pedagogical approach to be successful, it is important to constrain the problem space. Cancer is a very broad topic. In the current semester of the cancer topic, to constrain the problem space to something that students can more easily gain traction on, we asked them to work with one of five established human cancer cell lines.
With the option of one of five systems and the gamut of circuits (pathways) operational in these cancers, students have a multitude of options to strategize. Students make connections with information in databases, critically evaluate the data, and then identify a key focus area they want to work on. They then propose strategies to “rewire” the circuits that drive the cancer process. One such strategy employed to induce programmed death in cancer cells is depicted in Figure 1.
Students design and carry out a variety of experiments to evaluate the impact on cellular functions of blocking receptors, or knock down gene expression using silencing RNA (siRNA), or block enzymes with small molecular inhibitors or chemotherapeutic agents. At the conclusion of the study, the students reflect on their findings, compare and contrast their findings with previously published data, and discuss the implications for future work.
Course-end surveys clearly show that the class is a great learning experience, citing positive feedback on the freedom offered to identify the problem, strategize a solution, and carry out an experiment. Giving students basic information and skills and allowing them to take ownership of a project gives them the opportunity to practice the 3C’s.
Several teams expressed their curiosity by designing unique approaches for cancer intervention, such as assessing drug synergy, effect on 2D versus 3D cultures, and drug-encapsulated nanoparticles, just to name a few – ideas and experiments I might have never conceived.
Many student teams have produced novel information and some are continuing their research beyond the course in hopes of publishing their findings. A publication with undergraduates as first authors creates real impact in the field of cancer research, and it is of intrinsic value to the students because it builds their capacity and identity as engineers.
By creating graduates with an entrepreneurial mindset coupled with technical skills, we can pave the way to prepare future leaders in their respective fields.
In reading Bala’s story, I reflected on how such an extraordinary course came to be created. The key, I believe, was that Bala adopted an entrepreneurial mindset with respect to his teaching. He was curious. He wanted to know what would happen if he gave his students the opportunity to be curious themselves, to carry out experiments of their own design, to learn something new that they cared about, rather than something he thought was important to know or do. He abandoned the “myth of coverage,” the notion that there is a canon of critical topics and skills that students must know. He instead focused on creating a powerful learning experience.
Powerful learning experiences have two key features. They motivate students to learn and generate a recognition of the importance of learning, with a life-changing potential. One theory of motivation – self-determination theory – posits that people feel motivated when three psychological needs are met: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Bala’s students were motivated because they were given the choice of what experiments to conduct and what to learn about, they were provided the support they needed to competently carry out their experiments, and they worked closely with Bala and each other, developing meaningful personal relationships in the process. To top this all off, these motivated students were learning something that has the potential to change their lives. They were learning what it means to have an entrepreneurial mindset. Built into Bala’s course are the 3C’s that are familiar to KEEN faculty. Students were given the opportunity to be curious, to find something they wanted to learn something more about, and to fulfill that want. They were challenged to make connections between the data they generated with what is already known about cancer. And in so doing, they created something of real value: new insights about cancer that didn’t exist before they had conducted their work.
We need to not only foster an entrepreneurial mindset within our students, but also within ourselves, and what better way to do that than by innovating in the ways we teach and in the courses we design.
Joe Le Doux, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Learning and Experiences, collaborated with Dr. Pai in writing this article.