Becoming a Bioengineer, Both at Home and On Campus

by Erica K. Brockmeier

The junior year BE-MAD lab series includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis (pictured here), and spectroscopy. (Image: Bioengineering Educational Lab)

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.

The BE-MAD lab was also recreated on Gather.Town, an online video chat platform where students can speak with group members or instructors. Student groups also had their own tables where they could meet virtually to work on data analysis and lab report writing.

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.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Junior Bioengineering Students Filter ECG Signals for Use in Astronaut Fatigue-Monitoring Device

by Sophie Burkholder

Every undergraduate student pursuing a B.S.E. in Bioengineering participates in the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design Laboratory I & II courses, in which students work together on a series of lab-based design challenges with an emphasis on model development and statistical analysis. Recently, junior undergraduates enrolled in this course taught by Dr. Brian Chow and Dr. David Issadore (both of whom recently received tenure) completed a project involving the use of electrocardiography (ECG) to innovate a non-invasive fatigue-monitoring device for astronauts that tend to fall asleep during long operations in space.

Using ECG lead wires and electrodes with a BioPac M-35 data collection  apparatus, students collected raw data of their own heart and respiration rates, and loaded the data into MATLAB to analyze and calculate information like the heart rate itself, and portions of it like the QT-interval. “I think it was cool that we could measure signals from our own body and analyze it in a way that let us use it for a real-world application,” said junior Melanie Hillman about the project.

After taking these preliminary measurements, students used a combination of circuitry, MATLAB, and data acquisition boards to create both passive and active filters for the input signals. These filters helped separate the user’s breathing rate, which occurs at lower frequencies, from the heart rate, which occurs at higher frequencies, allowing for the data to be read and analyzed more easily. In their final design, most students used an active filter circuit chip that combined hardware with software to create bandpass filters of different frequency ranges for both input signals.

“It was nice to be able to do a lab that connected different aspects of engineering in the sense that we both electronically built circuits, and also modeled them theoretically, because normally there’s a separation between those two domains,” said junior Emily Johnson. On the final day of the project, Demo Day, groups displayed their designs ability to take one input from the ECG cables connected to a user, and filter it out into recognizable heart and respiration rates on the computer. This project, conducted in the in the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Educational Laboratory here at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering, is just one of many examples of the way this hallmark course of the bioengineering curriculum strives to bring together all aspects of students’ foundational engineering coursework into applications with significance in the real world.