Class Teaches the Engineering of Biology and Different Way to Learn

Professor David Needham

The students in the Pratt School of Engineering course, "Introduction to Biologically Inspired Materials and Materials Systems," seemed more like seasoned professionals than the undergraduates most of them were as they presented the results of their semester's exposure to the engineering of biology.

Theirs was a sophisticated show-and-tell, spoken without the aid of notes, on topics as diverse as how the mineralization process creates bones but can also clog arteries, why DNA's structure gives it seemingly magical properties, and how the parasites that cause Leishmaniasis lets it flourish in hostile environments.

"This isn't an exam, it's a workshop," said David Needham, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science who is the course's principal organizer. "It's a presentation that allows you to share what you have learned."

The innovative course was funded by a $2.9 million National Science Foundation (NSF) training program for graduate students. But it also has been offered to undergraduates and enrollments continue to grow, Needham reported in an interview. A slideshow of course photographs is available at CBIMMS Teaching Strategy.

"They've never had anything like this before," said Needham, who is co-director of the NSF Integrative Gradual Education and Research Traineeship Program at Pratt's Center for Biologically Inspired Materials and Materials Systems (CBIMMS).

As the inventor of a biologically inspired "liposome" carrier particle that can travel the bloodstream to precisely dump anticancer drugs within a tumor site, Needham is among 11 Duke faculty from the Pratt School and beyond who have opened their labs to students for independent research study projects coupled to the course.

"We're learning more about what is going on in terms of research than we ever would have normally," said biomedical engineering senior Ian Shakil. "Everything is framed in terms of problems. It's very tangible and design-oriented, rather than just sticking your head into the bushes and trying to understand an equation."

Jen Wei

The course, officially called ME/BME 265, offers a once-a-week three-hour immersion into problems that nature had to solve in order for organisms to function properly.

Students first learned how nature accomplished the feat of delivering oxygen to organisms from engineer Needham and from biologist Joseph Bonaventura, a research professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, who also directs a National Science Foundation protein structure and dynamics center in Puerto Rico.

The student participants then formed four-person teams to do their own information searches motivated by 13 independent study topics. Those searches steered them to use an engineer's perspective to more fully characterize -- or "reverse-engineer -- nature's solution. The budding engineers thus used nature to help them identify possible new ways to address human health problems.

Near the semester's end, all 13 teams reported on their findings and what they learned in the classroom, from literature searches and from the lab in an interdisciplinary environment where undergraduates, graduate students and faculty worked together. Group topics ranged from the self-assembly of DNA to the electrophysiology of the heart to vascular grafts to Needham's emerging liposome development.

Needham has seen enrollment in what has been an autumn class grow considerably. In 2003, 11 signed up, most of those graduate students in the CBIMMS program. A surge of biomedical engineering undergraduates helped boost that total to 37 in 2004 and 52 fall semester of 2005. A spring class (06) has now been added to meet the demand, Needham said. This term the course has been split into two sections to accommodate 92 undergraduate and graduate students.

"It's what I call 'facilitated learning,'" he said. "We bring students up to a level of sophistication with 18 hours of lectures. And then they begin to teach themselves, with faculty available as counselors that they can ask questions."

Lucy He and Tabitha Cooney

Needham said he encourages students in ME/BME 265 to truly learn by what he calls "a cycle of Experiment, Discovery, 'Uncovery' and Knowledge," which he abbreviates with the acronym "EDUK." Rote memorization is reserved for the kind of information that will be used later in class projects and laboratories, he said.

"What we are doing is teaching them how to fish," he said. "They can then go and pull in as many fish as they want, with as sophisticated a tackle as they can devise. And from what previous students have told me, they are learning and moreover will remember it when the semester is over."

His students seemed to applaud this experiment in what he calls "hands-on, minds-on learning."

"I'm a perfect example of his EDUK philosophy," said junior Beth Vasievich who has been working with Needham on an independent study project. "I came straight into the lab and I started doing experiments. And through my work I found out what questions to ask in trying to uncover exactly what was going on.

"I love the work that I've been doing in the lab. And I love the fact that school is exciting to me again."

Senior Bilal Aijazi said "the structure of this class is completely different. It's driven more by your own curiosity than some kind of external force, like a grade. It's something that is really empowering because you're really working on something that you enjoy."

Another undergraduate, Willy Wu, also agreed. "It's a very unusual course," he said. "He's approaching it from a different way, integrating a lot more faculty as advisers."

Students in past classes also provided critiques as part of essay-style exams that asked them to describe what they learned and how it might be help them in the future.

Students learn through "hands-on, minds-on" approach.

"Never in a course have I been exposed to such a wide range of different information -- from snake venom to sea sponges to an artificial nose," one wrote. "And since we as a class all engaged in questioning and answering, we were all incorporated into the learning process."

"Above all else I believe this class taught me to awaken my inquisitive mind and turn off the mind that never questions a professor's lecture or is satisfied with just getting the right answer, not understanding the material," wrote another.

Needham is hoping this course will become a model for a more integrative way of teaching engineers-in-training, beginning with the first year. "We would give them something real to stick on their Apple iPODS, learning by experience first," he said.

Tod Laursen, the Pratt School's senior associate dean for education, said "we have a number of faculty in Pratt who have been thinking hard about how to make our learning experiences more inquiry based. And David's efforts with the introduction to CBIMMS course comprise an outstanding example.

"We believe that the earlier we can expose students to the opportunity to do their learning in the laboratory, and to exercise their curiosity and creativity, the richer their educations will ultimately be."