In Conversation: Blended Learning in the Biomedical Engineering Classroom with Dr. Katherine E. Reuther

Biomedical Engineering (BME) is a field that requires the rigorous application of engineering principles and cutting-edge design concepts to the ever-changing worlds of science and medicine. Students who are enrolled in a BME program today will be expected to solve the problems of tomorrow. That type of problem-solving expertise demands students be agile, collaborative, and interdisciplinary; able to think fast, communicate well, and work with, and across, myriad fields. It is a demanding discipline, and it requires a rethinking of conventional classroom teaching methods. The question is, “what should that new classroom look like?”

After winning an award from the Provost’s Office in the spring of 2015, Dr. Katherine E. Reuther, a lecturer in the department of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia, asked that question, and decided to redesign her graduate level BME course to adhere to the current demands of a dynamic and multidisciplinary field.

The results were remarkable.

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Dr. Katherine E. Reuther
Biomedical Engineering

We interviewed Katherine at the start of the spring semester, as she began the implementation of her course. We now return to our conversation to see how everything turned out.

Katherine, you designed your course to meet specific goals for your students. Could you talk about those goals? What did you want your students to be able to do by the end of the semester?
The overall goal of the course was for students to obtain real-world training in biomedical design. More specifically, the course objectives for the students were to: 1) design a novel medical device 2) demonstrate knowledge of all aspects of product design, including problem definition, idea generation, prototyping, regulatory and intellectual property issues, and commercialization potential and business opportunity for a medical device 3) develop communication skills and 4) develop teamwork skills.

There were several different parts to your redesign; what was the most challenging aspect for you? What do you think was most challenging for your students?
While implementation of the course went rather smoothly, the most challenging aspects included dealing with some technical difficulties when preparing and sharing the video lectures and keeping pace to prepare the lectures well in advance such that the students were able to view the material prior to the class period. Similarly, the most challenging aspect for the students was keeping pace with the material, as a lot was expected of them in one semester.

What surprised you most about your course redesign?
I was most surprised about how well the course was received by the students. While most students have not participated in a “flipped classroom”, they were very open and enthusiastic about the new approach and were dedicated to making classroom time useful and productive.

The lecture videos that you created and assigned BEFORE class freed up time DURING class. What were you able to do differently during class?
In-class time was spent on a variety of collaborative learning experiences including workshops, group exercises, case studies, design review meetings, and presentations. I also invited into the classroom experts (from industry, start-ups, and business) to share their first-hand experiences and insights from the field and also to meet individually with student teams to consult with them on their projects.

Your students did a lot of group work, how did that go?
The students really embraced the opportunity to work with their groups in-class while receiving real-time feedback from the instructor, teaching assistants, and/or visiting experts. As the class evolved, the students were also able to interact with and provide feedback to the other groups in the class. This additional feedback with their classmates really engaged the entire classroom and forced the students to think critically about the material which significantly enhanced the learning environment.

What will you do differently next time?
Since the course was extremely fast-paced, I would like to consider extending it to two semesters.

Do you think that your new course design can be implemented across your whole department?
I think that the course design for this project-based biomedical design course was highly effective. However, every course is different and this model may not work for all courses. I do believe that the use of active learning strategies and group discussions are extremely valuable and could significantly enhance the learning environment in many courses.

Do you have any advice for teachers thinking of blending their classes?
If you choose to blend your course, I think it is critical to set expectations from the beginning for students and provide them information in an organized fashion. You can expect that it will be a lot of work on the front end but I do believe it is time well spent in the long run.

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Katherine and CCNMTL intend to take all of the lessons learned in Spring 2015 and apply them to the construction of a new course for the upcoming fall. Blended Learning, like Biomedical design, is an iterative process; improvements and innovations become the byproducts of focused effort.