Beyond boundaries: Integrating engineering and biology
For students studying a discipline strongly rooted in the physical sciences, it might seem contradictory that biology could appear alongside math, chemistry and physics as a course most engineering undergraduates should take.
Yet, says Tom Keenan, as multidisciplinary teams seek to solve global challenges in health, medicine and the environment, this natural science is integral to many engineering disciplines.
As a postdoctoral researcher in Biomedical Engineering Professor David Beebe’s lab, Keenan began brainstorming ideas for a biology course that would appeal to all College of Engineering undergraduates. In 2007, he and Beebe received funding through the college Engineering Beyond Boundaries (EB2) initiative to develop Engineering and Biology: Technological Symbiosis (
The two recruited more than two dozen undergraduate students to help develop the content, envisioning that someday the course could be required. (Now, the course counts as an elective in most College of Engineering departments.) “There was a lot of interest from our students in community-level engineering, as well as global engineering,” says Keenan, who now is an assistant scientist in neurology in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
Together, Keenan, Beebe and the students crafted three modules that are both meaningful to students and demonstrate the connection between biology and engineering. “We introduce them to biology, with a specific application in mind — and in a way that employs their engineering training,” says Keenan.
In the superhuman bionics module, students in the class study how to make prosthetic devices that exceed human function. A module that debuted initially as an exercise in using personal waste to generate electricity now engages students in discussions about how to manage agricultural and municipal solid waste and use it for energy. And for the third module, students learn how to adapt “Western” HIV/AIDS diagnostic tools for use in countries with limited access to electricity or water.
Kenny Kearney, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering mechanics and astronautics in December 2008, credits the course for introducing him to prosthetics — an area he hopes to pursue in graduate school. “What I really liked was the way the class not only discussed current technologies, but also focused on where the technologies could be going,” he says. “To me, the class really seemed to show that, for an innovative person, there are nearly countless opportunities to pursue by applying unconventional solutions to problems.”
Keenan and Beebe deliver Engineering and Biology online, and EB2 funding in 2009 enabled them to improve their content. They have coupled their own web-based narrated powerpoints with multimedia content in the public domain. For example, students better understand the limitations of prosthetic devices after they watch YouTube videos created by people who use prosthetics. In addition to viewing the lectures, students also take required web-based quizzes.
Students like the format and flexibility of the online lectures and, when they come to class, they’re prepared to tackle the challenge at hand, says Keenan “They’ve watched those presentations and the professor who’s leading that module — or the special lecturers, which we have a series of for each module — can then sit down and have a really in-depth discussion or analysis,” he says. “We take them far beyond the course material they’ve learned and really maximize the efficiency of the learning process.”
In each of the modules, students in Engineering and Biology apply what they’ve learned about biology and engineering as participants on interdisciplinary teams. They also share their knowledge, in “lay” language, through a community-outreach project of their choosing. Keenan and Beebe added the outreach component to the four-credit course to encourage students to think about how to communicate science and technology to public audiences. “You can’t say, ‘It’s really complicated,’ because that’s dismissive,” says Keenan. “You have to make it uncomplicated, and that’s your job.”
Students in the class have given talks to groups ranging from elementary and high school students to visitors at an area senior center. One recent outreach presentation had ties to computing: Students explored silicon-based memory and processors and how they might integrate such technologies with the human brain to improve their ability to think and store information. “That’s the kind of ‘out-there’ thinking we’re hoping they will do,” says Keenan.
As part of the outreach effort, student teams research their topic and give an in-class presentation that solidifies their technical knowledge of the subject. Then, they redevelop their talk for a general audience, also considering such factors as ethics and context.
Former student Emily Maslonkowski and her group presented a talk about stem cells to about 25 senior center residents. “I think that getting the students at the university to share their knowledge with the surrounding community is a great way to thank them for their support,” she says.
The students discussed what stem cells are, how they are made, what political issues surround stem cell research, and how stem cells could replace damaged cardiac tissue. “We got so many questions from the people there that you could really tell that they were interested and wanted to learn,” says Maslonkowski, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in May 2009 and now works for GE Healthcare in its operations management leadership program. “It was also really great to see how they didn’t just want the ‘watered-down’ version of science that they see on the news, but they wanted to know how it really worked and what it meant for them.”
While the course is open to any engineering undergraduate (prerequisites are minimal), Keenan says biomedical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, chemical and biological engineering, and mechanical engineering students enroll most often. “They can come together with a project that really makes sense from all the engineering disciplines — and work on a team that probably is a lot like what they’ll work on when they go to industry,” he says.
Former student Kearney agrees. “I think the most important thing that I learned from the class was how different fields of engineering can be combined to help solve problems that would be difficult for the individual fields to solve on their own,” he says.
Engineering External Relations
The College of Engineering 2010 initiative, now known as Engineering Beyond Boundaries, or EB2, began in 2005. This long-term effort aims to transform undergraduate education to better prepare our graduates to work in culturally diverse, cross-disciplinary teams to address global grand challenges.
Engineers will play a role in solving every major challenge facing society. Yet there is no single complex problem that will be solved exclusively by engineers. To make a difference, engineers will need to contribute to teams that are culturally and intellectually diverse. Through EB2, we hope to make that diversity come to life for our students.Engineering Beyond Boundaries Program