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Teaching from the Heart

Through early community outreach, new biomedical engineering faculty member Aaron Kyle aims to instill “STEM identities” in future engineers

Professor of the Practice Aaron Kyle credits the “Transformers” television show for sparking his passion for biomedical engineer-ing. He was fascinated by the concept of living robots. Could such a thing actually exist in the real world? His initial interest in technology and living systems evolved in middle school, when he began to learn about the electrome-chanical sequence that drives the heart. This stimulated a desire to learn more about the design and development of medical devices like cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators.

As an undergraduate, Kyle attended Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. Kettering did not offer an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering (BME), so he earned a degree in electrical engineering before pursuing a PhD at Purdue University in BME. There, as a teaching assistant for an instrumentation course, he fell in love with mentoring and supporting students’ learning. When Purdue began offering an undergraduate major in BME, Kyle was recruited to help design a new instrumentation course alongside one of his mentors, Professor Ann Rundell, and found that troubleshooting new teaching methods paralleled teaching biomedical research methods in many ways.

Today, the central questions of Kyle’s research pertain to engineering education and improving students’ STEM confidence and identity. He is primarily concerned with outreach education and expanding research opportunities for young, underrepresented individuals including racial minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and students from underserved schools.

In teaching design to middle and high school students, Kyle is fostering a broader interest in STEM by allowing them to see themselves as the drivers of innovation.

He couples design instruction with hands-on experiences for the students, including workshops that incorporate microcontrollers, rapid prototyping, and basic circuitry to create medical device prototypes. The program also aims to dismantle students’ notions of imposter syndrome—the idea that every success belongs to someone else and every failure is their own—by showing them that, regardless of their background, they can be the drivers of innovation.

Kyle intends to introduce a program he created in New York, called “Outreach Design Education,” to Durham. That would involve bringing Durham high school students to Duke’s campus to familiarize them with the engineering design process and design fabrication labs before asking them to engineer a solution to a real health care problem. The program recruits local teachers to learn engineering design alongside students and offers home school teachers opportunities to work with Kyle to create engineering design content of their own.

A new component that he’s going to test in Durham is teaching middle school students. Research literature states that grades 6 – 8 is a critical timeframe for a student to develop a STEM identity and persistence. As such, front-loading hands-on engineering can help students fortify their morale and pursue challenging STEM courses. “This is different than the traditional education system that has the design portion of the experience come toward the end of a student’s career,” said Kyle.

As an instructor of both EGR101, First-Year Design, and BME473/474, the department’s capstone design classes, Kyle is forming a more holistic understanding of student academic development from high school to early undergrad to senior year of college. “This way, I can identify important factors that enable students to be successful when entering college, and strengthen those skill sets in the high school workshop,” said Kyle.

Kyle is also making it a priority to incorporate Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) into engineering curricula, which increases the specificity of a design problem and results in better-defined projects that appropriately address the needs of underserved communities.

“The ability to share good fortune with others, and to perhaps inspire them, is a special opportunity,” said Kyle. “Being at a university like this can be an echo chamber of backgrounds and aspirations, but you can and should take advantage of the chance to learn from the local community. The experience will complement the world-class education you’re receiving at Duke.”

From the 2023 DukEngineer Magazine