While the majority of courses remained online this spring, a small number of lab-based undergraduate courses were able to resume limited in-person instruction. One course was BE 310, the second semester of the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design lab sequence. Better known as BE-MAD, this junior-year bioengineering course was able to bring students back to the teaching lab safely this spring while adapting its curriculum to keep remote learners engaged with hands-on lab modules at home.
An essential step towards becoming a bioengineer
After learning the basics of chemistry, physics, biology, and math during freshman year and studying bioengineering fundamentals throughout sophomore year, BE-MAD is designed to provide essential hands-on experience to bioengineering majors during their junior years. In BE-MAD, students integrate what they’ve learned so far in the classroom to addressing complex, real-world problems by breaking down the silos that exist across different STEM fields.
“Usually what we hear from students is that this BE 309/310 sequence is when they really feel like they are engineers,” says Brian Chow, one of the BE 310 instructors. “They can put what they learn in classes to work in some practical setting and applied context.”
BE-MAD is also an important course to prepare students for senior design and is designed to be a “safe space to fail,” allowing students to build confidence through trial and error within a supportive environment, explains Sevile G. Mannickarottu, director of the educational laboratories. “We’re trying to build skills needed for senior year as well as teaching students how to think critically about problems by pulling together the materials they’ve learned all in one place,” he says. “By senior year, we want them to, when presented with a problem, not be afraid.”
Adapting BE-MAD for both remote and hybrid instruction
Traditionally, the BE-MAD lab is taught in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary bioengineering teaching lab, and includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis, and spectroscopy. In the fall, the first lab in the series (BE-309) pivoted to remote learning using video tutorials of lab experiments and providing real data to students for analysis.
This spring, with more aspects of on-campus life able to reopen, the Educational Laboratory staff and BE-MAD instructors developed protocols in collaboration with David Meaney, Penn Engineering senior associate dean and an instructor for BE 309, and Penn’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety office to safely reopen the teaching lab and Bio-MakerSpace for both BE-310 and for bioengineering senior design students.
To continue to meet the needs of remote students, BE 310 instructor Lukasz Bugaj says that the curriculum was adapted to be two parallel courses—one that could be done entirely at home and the other in-person. The challenge was to adjust the content so that it could be completed either in-person or virtually, and could be switched from in-person to virtual at a moment’s notice because of COVID precautions, all while maximizing the hands-on experience, says Bugaj. “That’s a real credit to the lab staff of Sevile and Michael Patterson, who put a lot of work into revamping this entire class.”
“We identified the key things that we wanted students to learn, in terms of traditional engineering skills, being able to work with circuits, computer aided design work, and figuring out how to include that so they can all enter senior year prepared,” explains Mannickarottu about how the curriculum was adapted. “This is also serves as a skills class, so we try to identify key components we want them to be prepared with and define everything around that.”
One of the adaptations for this spring included assembling kits for both remote and on-campus students. Available via contactless pickup outside Skirkanich Hall during the quiet period or shipped directly to remote students, these kits allowed remote students to still be involved in hands-on work; they also enabled on-campus students to work during the quiet period and continue their work if they had to quarantine or self-isolate during the semester. The lab space was also recreated on Gather.Town, an online video chat platform where students can speak with group members or instructors during the lab.
Learning at home and in person
Sophia Mark, a bioengineering junior in Hong Kong, has been working remotely all academic year but has been able to connect with the in-person labs through a group member who is on campus this spring. While this past year of remote work from an international time zone has been challenging, Mark says that the staff and TAs have been very accommodating and she enjoys seeing what her colleagues on campus are working on. “I think we equally get to observe what [in-person members] do, and I think that’s a good way to go about the virtual situation,” says Mark.
Mark also received a kit at home, and when some parts weren’t able to be mailed internationally the instructors helped her find alternatives and reimbursed her for purchases she made. Mark adds that her favorite at-home experiment was the spectrophotometer module. “It was more about understanding the concepts behind the electrical components and what they do, and it’s fun to see your products work,” says Mark.
Kelly Lopez, a bioengineering junior from Los Angeles, is also working remotely. She also has an at-home kit and a team member who is doing in-person that she is able to follow along with. During the three-hour lab session, she and her teammates work together at their own virtual table in Gather.Town, where they can also ask questions to the TAs while they are working.
While Lopez misses being in the lab, she’s enjoyed being able to work on modules that have real-world connections in collaboration with her teammates. “The instructors build modules where you solve a real-life problem, such as ‘We want you to build a fatigue monitoring system to be used in space flight,’” Lopez explains. “For every lab there is a specific scenario that contextualizes the problem we are trying to solve, and that helps.”
For students who were able to come to campus, the teaching lab opened in early February after the quiet period. Students were required to wear both face masks and face shields as well as remain six feet apart. Density was also reduced by having students work on projects independently instead of in groups. Students also work in shifts, with half of the group working in the lab while the other work on data analysis and lab report writing in an adjacent active learning classroom. Students also watch lectures online before coming to lab so that the three-hour course can be dedicated to completing the lab modules.
Kerry Blatney, a bioengineering junior from Darien, Connecticut, whose lab group members are all on campus this spring, greatly enjoys being in the lab again, even after getting over the initial shock of masks, face shields, and working six feet apart. “It’s been really good, and the instructors really adjusted well,” she says. “Even though you can tell we’re still in COVID, we still do a lot of the same stuff we would do if it were two years ago.”
Blatney and other in-person students also have a box filled with breadboards, resistors, capacitors, and other supplies that they bring to lab with them. While these kits were developed in case students need to self-isolate or quarantine, Blatney says she’s also been able to use these supplies to do any unfinished lab work while at home. “When I don’t finish things during the session, I come home and don’t have to physically be in the lab to get something that you need to, so that’s also been helpful,” adds Blatney.
Lessons learned by both instructors and students
While certain modules were challenging to adapt to remote learning because of equipment access, it’s also spurred new and innovative approaches to teaching core concepts in BE-MAD. One example was the electrocardiogram (ECG) module, which had students create a device that can measure their heart rate and was something that both in-person and at-home students were able to do.
“At the end of that module, students will have built something out of a couple of components and a tiny microcontroller, and they can, on their own computer, watch their heart rhythms,” says Bugaj. “That’s pretty cool and that’s not something we ever did before.”
This past year has also created new ways to think about STEM education and distance learning more broadly, adds Chow. “Adversity breeds innovation. I hope we can take away the innovation from these new modules, in facilitating work at home and creating pre-recorded demonstrations and lectures to enhance the experience, even when we can go back to our old setup,” says Chow. “We’ll probably retain a good bit of what’s new because it may make more interesting and fun labs that improve learning outcomes.”
While Mark missed out on having an in-person lab experience, she’s still learned a lot that has prepared her for senior design in the fall and is thinking about ways to use the analytical and coding skills she gained this year. “I’ve gotten a deeper insight into what bioengineers would be doing and what kind of things we’d be working with,” adds Mark. “And learning in general about how scientists deal with the error you can get in your experiments and how to report those kinds of variables, I think that will definitely be a skill I will take into senior design.”
Part of what also makes junior year an essential time for bioengineers is more opportunities for teamwork, says Lopez, who adds that being able to keep in touch with her team has helped her stay connected to both her bioengineering program and to Penn as a whole. “Part of the BE-MAD experience is to go through it with others, and that’s helped me improve on skills that will be important even after Penn, so that has been the biggest takeaway,” she says.
“BE MAD incorporates a lot of what you learned before, and it’s really awesome to see that everything is culminating with me feeling competent in areas that previously I haven’t really gotten to do,” says Blatney about her in-person experience, which she says she feels “very lucky” to have been a part of. “I know that I’ll take these skills forward and will be on a good foundation for senior design.”
Despite the many uncertainties and last-minute changes this past year, Mannickarottu is thankful that BE-MAD was able to incorporate some level of in-person work this spring. “The first week of in-person there was a lot of anxiety, and what we do is to encourage an attitude of ‘Let me try this out and see what happens,’” says Mannickarottu. “I’m happy that the University allowed us to be open and that students recognize the value of this.”
Lukasz Bugaj is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Brian Chow is an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Sevile Mannickarottu is the Director of the Educational Laboratories in the Department of Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.