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Designing an Innovative Undergraduate Curriculum

At the beginning of this millennium the demand for engineers who could integrate the technical expertise of both biological and engineering sciences was being clearly articulated by leaders in the medical device and healthcare industries.

With the enthusiastic support of the leadership of Purdue University, the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, the Whitaker Foundation, faculty members from key disciplines in the Purdue College of Engineering began a collaborative process to design a program to educate a new type of Purdue engineer to meet the emerging needs of our industrial partners.  The enthusiasm for this program development was supported by a generous gift of $10M from the Weldons, a family of alumni with long-standing medical device industry expertise.

Building on a long history of training engineers through an integrated educational process of applying solid theoretical principles to real-world design-and-build problem-solving, a new biomedical engineering curriculum was charted with a backbone of highly-integrated design laboratory courses.  In these innovative laboratories, students learn to apply critical thinking and design skills in creative ways to solve the rapidly changing problems of healthcare.  By immersing them in the fundamentals of biology and medicine throughout each semester of engineering training, the students develop the practical design skills needed to provide solutions for the next generation of medical needs.  Courses offered jointly by faculty in Biological Sciences and Basic Medical Science provide significant cross-disciplinary learning. An efficient closed-loop assessment strategy, based on measurable performance criteria, was designed as an integrated part of the new curriculum. Each cycle of this process has led to continuous and significant improvements. 

Bets Lillo, Senior Director, Abbott Transition Organization at Abbott asserted: “The BME degree is a preferred degree for our QPDP program, because quality roles are integrative by their nature, and Weldon BMEs have demonstrated the ability to pull together information across both engineering and sciences.”

The ultimate evidence for success of this novel and integrated academic program approach is in the achievements of our students in their professional careers. However, even before graduation of the first class, supporting data for their proficiency was evident.  NSF funding has supported the development of key components of the curriculum.  An NSF-funded STEM program in Quantitative Physiology provides scholarships and a unique, supportive, training community for academically talented undergraduate students with an interest in applying mathematical and computational tools to study physiological problems. Each of our five core design lab courses were received enthusiastically at presentations at national educational meetings with our course manuals distributed to other institutions.  Several faculty members have already received awards for innovation and excellence in teaching including the ASEE award (Prof. Jenna Rickus) and the Marion B. Scott Award (Prof. Pedro Irazoqui).   Recently, the Cook Group, Inc. endowed a named professorship ($1.5M) in honor of founding faculty member, Leslie A. Geddes.

Our first cadre of B.S. BME graduates have had excellent placement in medical companies (Baxter Healthcare, Boston Scientific, GE Healthcare, Roche, etc.)  and top graduate / professional programs (e.g., Harvard MBA, Colorado Law School, Washington University Medical School) and continuing students are receiving excellent reviews as undergraduate interns at both established companies and start-ups (e.g., Abbott, Cook Group, Biomet, Pfizer, SonarMed) and federal programs (e.g. BESIP). 

Steven Charlebois, Manager of Product Discovery at Cook MED Institute,  recently said this about one of our interns:  “It is safe to say that Andrew far exceeded our expectations for the work he was able to perform this summer, and it is commendable that he was able to flex and adapt to the dynamic environment with our group....He is a very detailed and curious individual, and was able to dive into each opportunity we presented him and utilize the resources at his disposal to get the job done.”