Biomedical Engineering in the Virtual World

10/7/20 Duke BME Magazine

With the onset of a global pandemic, Duke BME faculty, staff and students quickly adapted in-person courses, programs and projects into an online format

Matt Brown completes ultrasound experiments with student projects
Biomedical Engineering in the Virtual World

Biomedical engineering students at Duke University don’t typically learn engineering concepts from a video of a lab manager pushing a cart filled with plush toys, but the 2020 Spring semester was anything but typical. 

As the novel coronavirus began to spread around the globe in early March, universities around the country began to transition their in-person classes into online formats to limit risks for students. For biomedical engineers at Duke, this meant that faculty and staff who typically teach lab-focused courses had to find new and creative ways to virtually convey complicated concepts to their students.

Enter Marcus Henderson, the senior lab manager in Duke BME and the main star of a video series created for BME 302: Biomechanics.

“Usually students would use accelerometers to measure velocity of their fellow students, but with social distancing guidelines that wouldn’t be possible,” says Henderson. “Instead, we filmed a video where I pushed a cart filled with stuffed animals that are holding a Wii-mote. The students integrated the accelerations from this remote to get velocity, and then integrated again to find the traveled distance.

“It’s obviously not as great as an in-person course, but we found that these videos give students a clearer example of the engineering and physics they’re trying to learn, rather than just reading about the concepts in a textbook.”

“I was really pleased that the demo aspect of the course was still included,” says Emily Barre, a rising senior in BME who took BME 302. “The videos with Marcus Henderson were really thorough, and it was helpful to be able to visualize more abstract concepts.”

Matt Brown completes ultrasound experiments with student projects
Matt Brown completes ultrasound experiments with student projects

In addition to videos recorded at Duke, some faculty and staff, like Matt Brown, a fellow senior lab manager, created makeshift labs in their own homes to provide a more customized experience for students. For the lab portions of BME 303L: Modern Diagnostic Systems, Brown used an ultrasound scanner to identify hidden objects in projects that students had remotely 3D-printed, which helped them learn how to interpret ultrasound images.

“Matt Brown was able to host a few live sessions with students and do individual demos, so it felt like a really personalized learning experience,” says Corey Simmerer, a rising senior in BME and ECE who took BME 303L. “It ended up being much better than I expected. 

Libby Bucholz, an assistant professor of the practice in Duke BME and the primary instructor for BME 303L, also made strategic changes to the course to ensure that students remained engaged in the content, even if the delivery format was less-than-ideal. In addition to using breakout rooms to allow students to work together on handouts and other assignments, Bucholz involved the class in MRI demonstrations so they could learn how to use the imaging technique. Most notably, she adapted the final project from a simple PowerPoint presentation into something a bit more fun.

“One student adapted a One Direction song into a music video that explained CT scans, while others used their phone cameras and MATLAB to show what is seen through different scanners,” says Bucholz. “I think it’s something I’ll do again next year, regardless of whether the pandemic continues.”

Although it was easier to adapt some courses to the virtual format than others, students did notice that working online allowed them to connect more easily with faculty and staff if they had questions.

“I found it was much easier to speak with faculty because they had a much wider variety of office hours available,” says Simmerer. “All of these extended efforts made it clear that faculty and staff were making an additional effort to give students a quality learning experience, even if things were less than ideal.” 

But these changes weren’t just felt by undergraduate students. To earn their PhD, graduate students must defend their dissertation in front of a committee of faculty with relevant knowledge of their research. Friends and family often attend these meetings so they can celebrate with their graduate once they pass. But in the age of social distancing, these in-person events were no longer possible.

“I was able to virtually defend my thesis on March 27th, and that essentially meant hosting a large Zoom meeting where the faculty would watch me present and then ask questions about the research,” says Bridget Crawford, a recent PhD graduate of Duke BME. “I think defending in my own home removed some of the stress from an otherwise very stressful event, and although I wish I could have presented in person, I’m glad that I was able to defend in a way that kept my family, friends, colleagues and committee members safe.”

Although students saw firsthand that virtual learning had its limitations, they credit the Duke BME faculty and staff for their work to make the new format as helpful as possible.  

“I acknowledge that my experience was relatively smooth, and that it can’t begin to capture what everyone has gone through in these last few months,” says Barre. “I think the faculty did the best they could for what was clearly an unprecedented situation, and the experience really illustrates that Duke engineers are invested in creating innovative solutions to these life-changing problems.”