“’The students all come here and they hang out and they build stuff,’ said David Issadore, associate professor of bioengineering and electrical and systems engineering. ‘This junior-level course is kind of an entry point for their senior design. So next year, all these students are going to take on new projects, and then they all kind of hang around here and they build incredible stuff.’”
The profile of the BE Labs is part of Technical.ly’s 2023 Universities Month, a series focusing on the latest trends and tech in higher education.
Fourth year undergraduate Jerry Gao (BE ’23) is the latest student featured in 34th Street Magazine’s “Ego of the Week” series. Jerry, who hails from Coppell, TX, majors in Bioengineering with a minor in Asian American Studies. In addition to his academic studies, he is passionate about education and literacy, working with The Signal, the Asian Pacific American Leadership Initiative, and the Penn Reading Initiative. In this Q&A, he discusses the sense of community that brought him to Penn, the love of cooking (and gifting food to his friends) that powers his @gaos_chows Instagram account, and his experience as a student and now TA in Penn Bioengineering’s “BE MAD” lab class:
“Now that you’re on your way to graduating, what have been your favorite classes or experiences in Bioengineering or Asian American Studies?
‘In terms of bioengineering, there’s definitely a clear favorite that I have. It’s actually the class I’m a TA for right now. It’s “Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design,” and it’s basically the lab that all junior bioengineers take. There’s one particular lab we do in the class that always catches everyone’s attention; it’s called the cockroach lab. I think it’s one of the biggest reasons why people want to study bioengineering at Penn in particular.
It’s a segue into prosthetics and different medical devices that can help restore people’s limb functions. We order hundreds of cockroaches and then we put them in a little bit of an ice bath to anesthetize. We amputate their legs, which will essentially serve as our prosthetics, and then implant metal electrodes into two different spots of the leg. Then, we go into our computer program and type different lines of code that can help replicate different signal waves to move the legs. If you submit a wave with a particular frequency and particular amplitude, it’ll cause a leg to move in one direction, and if you do a different combination of the amplitude and frequency, it’ll cause it to move in the other direction. The next task is to trace the end of the leg and try to choreograph the leg to spell the letters B and E for bioengineering. It’s so fun to be able to see what combination of leg movements in the servo motor can form the backbone of the B for example, what can form the three lines of the E. I would say that’s probably my favorite moment in the bioengineering department.'”
While the majority of courses remained online this spring, a small number of lab-based undergraduate courses were able to resume limited in-person instruction. One course was BE 310, the second semester of the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design lab sequence. Better known as BE-MAD, this junior-year bioengineering course was able to bring students back to the teaching lab safely this spring while adapting its curriculum to keep remote learners engaged with hands-on lab modules at home.
An Essential Step Towards Becoming a Bioengineer
After learning the basics of chemistry, physics, biology, and math during freshman year and studying bioengineering fundamentals throughout sophomore year, BE-MAD is designed to provide essential hands-on experience to bioengineering majors during their junior years. In BE-MAD, students integrate what they’ve learned so far in the classroom to addressing complex, real-world problems by breaking down the silos that exist across different STEM fields.
“Usually what we hear from students is that this BE 309/310 sequence is when they really feel like they are engineers,” says Brian Chow, one of the BE 310 instructors. “They can put what they learn in classes to work in some practical setting and applied context.”
BE-MAD is also an important course to prepare students for senior design and is designed to be a “safe space to fail,” allowing students to build confidence through trial and error within a supportive environment, explains Sevile G. Mannickarottu, director of the educational laboratories. “We’re trying to build skills needed for senior year as well as teaching students how to think critically about problems by pulling together the materials they’ve learned all in one place,” he says. “By senior year, we want them to, when presented with a problem, not be afraid.”
Adapting BE-MAD for Both Remote and Hybrid Instruction
Traditionally, the BE-MAD lab is taught in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary bioengineering teaching lab, and includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis, and spectroscopy. In the fall, the first lab in the series (BE-309) pivoted to remote learning using video tutorials of lab experiments and providing real data to students for analysis.
This spring, with more aspects of on-campus life able to reopen, the Educational Laboratory staff and BE-MAD instructors developed protocols in collaboration with David Meaney, Penn Engineering senior associate dean and an instructor for BE 309, and Penn’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety office to safely reopen the teaching lab and Bio-MakerSpace for both BE-310 and for bioengineering senior design students.
To continue to meet the needs of remote students, BE 310 instructor Lukasz Bugaj says that the curriculum was adapted to be two parallel courses—one that could be done entirely at home and the other in-person. The challenge was to adjust the content so that it could be completed either in-person or virtually, and could be switched from in-person to virtual at a moment’s notice because of COVID precautions, all while maximizing the hands-on experience, says Bugaj. “That’s a real credit to the lab staff of Sevile and Michael Patterson, who put a lot of work into revamping this entire class.”