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New design lab is critical part of BME undergraduate education

Professors Willis Tompkins and John Webster (center) have taught design to hundreds of biomedical engineering students. Many BME alumni gathered in spring 2014 to celebrate these two remarkable educators. Photo courtesy Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Since the Department of Biomedical Engineering was founded in 1999, design has been at the core of its curriculum. Now, thanks to a lead gift from alumnus Peter Tong, the Webster Tompkins Design Laboratory is set to enhance the design experience for a new generation of engineers.

Tong, who earned his degree in electrical and computer engineering in 1965, says he didn’t have access to design labs during his time on campus.

He recalls scrounging in a general shop to find parts for his prototypes, and not always being able to afford to build a prototype. In fact, once his professor paid out of his own pocket to help Tong get the parts he needed. “That’s always stuck in the back of my mind,” he says. “That’s why if there’s anything I can do to help students, and as long as I’m able, I will continue to assist them.”

Over the years, Tong and his family have made gifts that have benefited engineering students in various capacities. For example, the Tong Family Foundation has sponsored the Tong BME Design Competition, the Tong BME Distinguished Entrepreneur Lecture series, the Tong Prototype Prize as part of Innovation Days, and the Tong Auditorium in Engineering Centers Building.

The gift for the Webster Tompkins Design Laboratory is the family’s most recent effort to develop engineering students. The design space is named for BME Professors John Webster and Willis Tompkins, two of the department’s founding faculty. “These two men are really rare treasures for the College of Engineering,” Tong says. “They love students and love to teach. They love to show kids how to do things right.”

The new design laboratory will make it even easier for students to master design techniques. Its design encourages collaborative learning, featuring stations with sets of laptops, space for testing equipment, and a whiteboard for project design and organization. The setup of the lab also allows instructors to either give traditional lectures or to move freely from group to group to offer project-specific assistance.

This new design lab will be an integral part of BME senior capstone design projects. BME students are paired with clients to develop health-related solutions that meet the specific needs of the client. Having a dedicated space to design and test prototypes will be invaluable to students, both now and when they are in industry, Tong says. “To be successful, you don’t just think about design, you actually put your hands together and make something. And then you have to present your work,” he says. “These are the steps you’ll have to do in real-world industry. Getting yourself in tune with the right process early in your career is critical.”

The lab fund-raising effort inspired several alumni to make first-time gifts to the department. It also included matching funds from an anonymous college gift, as well as significant support from mechanical engineering alumnus Leon Janssen and others.

John Steeno
7/30/2014