From Atoms to Organs: Undergraduate BME Major Underway

The 2015-16 academic year was a transformative one for biomedical engineering at Cornell, with a $50 million gift from the Meinig Family coming alongside N.Y. state approval to offer a four-year Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in the summer of 2015. The department was upgraded and renamed, and in January 2016 the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering welcomed 19 affiliated sophomores to the inaugural class of BME majors. While at first glance the program may seem to be ramping up, in fact the idea for an undergraduate major in biomedical engineering has been over ten years in the making. And with focused program planning by Cornell’s faculty leadership in the past two years, the Meinig School B.S. in biomedical engineering (as well as its majors) are indeed ready to fly. 

Of particular note are the several progressive pedagogical features that distinguish this program from parallel programs at peer institutions. First is its curricular platform, designed to develop a quantitative understanding of the human body as integrated, multi-scale systems. To establish this knowledge base, students pursue two parallel curricular streams: (1) a sequential series of four core laboratory-supported courses that present engineering analysis of disease mechanisms at molecular, cellular, tissue, and organ system levels, and (2) a concentration module of interdisciplinary engineering skills that fit key biomedical engineering career areas: molecular, cellular, and systems engineering; biomaterials and drug delivery, biomedical imaging and instrumentation; and biomechanics and mechanobiology. Each concentration module culminates in a unique laboratory practicum in which students gain real-world, practical expertise working with the latest technologies and processes in their chosen specialty. This schedule, says Jonathan Butcher, associate professor, associate director of BME, and director of undergraduate studies, “encompasses the variability and uncertainty of disease mechanisms that initiate and propagate across various scales, providing a strong platform from which students learn to engineer robust therapies, devices, and diagnostic procedures to improve human health.”

Additionally, in their final year, all BME students pursue a year-long design sequence ideating and building solutions to real-world, open-ended problems from the biomedical industry and the clinic. These team-based projects are designed to reflect the irreducible working units in today’s biomedical industry. Students are trained to recognize where and how to add value to a product, and then to utilize their complementary skills to innovate a solution confidently. “This environment creates essential training in professional skills necessary for long-term career progression,” says Butcher. Students can further broaden their education by pursuing tailored course paths within Cornell’s renowned liberal arts tradition, including pre-medicine, public policy, study abroad, and entrepreneurship.

Another unique program feature is its “flipped curriculum” whereby students first explore the applications landscape before digging into intellectual and technical content. “Traditionally, content is presented the other way around,” says  Professor Lawrence Bonassar, who was integrally involved in designing the major's program with Butcher. This unique twist, he says, “primes students with the challenges and opportunities inherent to biomedical engineering so that they are motivated to pursue the necessary deeper expertise to meet those needs.” 

A highlight of the Meinig School major's curriculum is an emphasis on experiential learning, facilitated by an Engaged Curriculum Grant from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives. All BME majors embark on extracurricular, long-term, student-driven projects, and participate in experiential learning seminars designed to connect coursework with real-world experience. They choose from a variety of individual and team-based opportunities such as serving as research assistants in faculty laboratories, participating in design team projects, or engaging in community outreach. Flexibility in their project choices means students can build knowledge specific to their own interests and career goals. In addition to a richer experience for students, this program also builds direct ties between the Meinig School and various community members as diverse as local hospitals, the public, and industry. Juxtaposition of coursework with these unpredictable, real-world situations provides continually varying engineering contexts and develops students’ capacity to adapt to an uncertain and changing professional biomedical terrain.     

Within seminars and in more traditional courses, the curriculum incorporates exercises that blend material from lectures, textbooks, and the student’s real world experiences. In this way, students take engineering concepts from the classroom into the communities within which they work; in other words, they put theory into practice, and bring practice into discussions of theory. The experiential learning seminar also provides complimentary training in soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and leadership. As an example, BME has partnered with Poppy Mcleod, associate professor in Cornell’s Department of Communication, to assess and develop students’ teamwork skills and to guide them in how to apply these skills to their real-world and class projects. 

With the curriculum in place and a stream of incoming freshman interested in BME, the Meinig School’s future looks bright. “We expect healthy growth for the BME majors program in the next few years,” confirms Marjolein van der Meulen, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Director of Biomedical Engineering and Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Meinig School. “This is due in part to a global need for qualified BME engineers in industries from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to medical devices and consulting, but also because of the strength of our program vision and our faculty.” Within this growth, the program is thrilled to see increasing diversity. In 2015, 75% percent of affiliating BME majors were women and 20% were underrepresented minorities. Compared to the national average for all undergraduate engineering students, which is 18% and 13% respectively (source: American Society for Engineering Education), these numbers demonstrate Cornell Engineering’s (and the Meinig School in particular) commitment to diversity in the STEM fields.

Van der Meulen expects the program to double enrollment year-to-year, with a graduating class of around 80 by the time the first BME majors graduate in 2018. With all this curricular muscle behind them, Meinig School graduates are ideally positioned for careers or further education in the engineering and life science industries.