The plenary talk “The de facto core curriculum in BME and BIOE,” provided an historical perspective to the question of the existence of a core curriculum. This discussion began in 1991 with representatives of 19 accredited programs convening at Wright State University. A brief report indicated that there were common elements of the curricula at that time. Discussions about the core elements of the undergraduate curriculum have continued since, especially at the three subsequent BME Education Summit meetings, the last one occurring in Chicago in 2008.
The most extensive study of the core curriculum was carried out by the VaNTH (Vanderbilt-Northwestern-Texas-HST) ERC in Bioengineering Educational Technologies in 2004 and updated in 2013. A survey of BioE and BME programs for the fourth Summit Meeting in 2019 supplemented and updated this again. These surveys demonstrated that a core undergraduate curriculum exists, with differences occurring in the form of elective engineering courses. We define the consistent core curriculum by those courses required by at least 75% of ABET accredited programs, and this has been consistent since 2004. In order of prevalence this includes:
Freshman engineering (sometimes but not always focused on BME),
BME capstone design,
Additional biology (usually cell and molecular),
Circuits and instrumentation,
Fluid mechanics and transport, and
Clearly the BME curriculum is distinct and does not resemble that of any other engineering field. Instead, as befits an interdisciplinary field, the BME core includes a hybrid of key elements of several fields, plus a heavy dose of biology. Data from the VaNTH project showed that faculty and industry participants largely agreed on the relative importance of individual concepts that should be in the undergraduate curriculum. As expected from the existing curriculum, important concepts were identified in many areas, and those related to statistics and measurements were among the most important.
Break-out sessions delved into data collected from the curriculum survey, and the factors that are influential in driving a particular curricular makeup for an institution.
These data indicated that the following content depth was consistent:
5–8 credit-hours: quantitative physiology, instrumentation, and computer programming.
1–4 credit-hours: quantitative molecular/cell biology, statistics, signal processing, solid mechanics, transport, and biomaterials.
Inconsistent: Organic chemistry, tissue engineering, control systems, and fluid mechanics were not mandatory in a significant number of programs.
Leaders also presented data that the most common lab courses were Instrumentation (almost 90%). Physiology (>50%), and Mechanics (just <50%), with Molecular Biology Labs and Advanced Chemistry Lab being less common.
Correlation Between Courses
Statistical analyses were used to examine the clustering of particular courses, which demonstrated that there were several significant Spearman correlations between the degrees to which certain courses were offered. A Principal Components Analysis (PCA) demonstrates that the majority of the variability in the data was due to the degree to which either Computer Programming, Signal Processing, Controls, Solid Mechanics, and Transport are offered (F1, 23.8% of variability), or to the degree to which Quantitative Cell and Molecular Biology, Tissue Engineering, and Biomaterials exist in a curriculum (F2, 14.54% of variability).
The PCA showed correlations in the existence of courses in a specific department’s curriculum:
Instrumentation, Fluids, and Transport
Signals, Solid Mechanics, Quantitative Physiology, and Control
Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering, and
Computer Programming and Quantitative Molecular and Cellular Biology.
However, this analysis showed that inter-institutional clustering does not exist across the two principal components. In other words, there is a wide range of variation in how different institutions choose to assemble their curriculum. The discussants speculated that the origins in the variability was due to several factors, including historical origins (e.g. the founding faculty came from different disciplines), variance based on size of the undergraduate class, the presence or absence of tracks, effects of double majors and other concentrations, differences in university requirements for free electives, and students’ planned future trajectories.
On-Boarding and Tracks
During the break-out sessions, a rich discussion addressed additional issues related to students’ entrance into the program, and modifications of core curricula in a dynamic biomedical engineering field. Real-time surveys showed that there is not a consistent pathway to attracting and retaining students to BME. In general students are expected to declare their major early, with the following distribution:
1st semester: 32%,
2nd semester: 20%,
3rd semester: 38%, and
4th semester: 8%.
Slightly over half (57%) of departments represented by attendees offering an Introduction to BME course for their first-year students. Those who offer this course believe it to be a good way to prepare their students for their advanced coursework and improve retention in the BME major.
Conversations focused on the benefits/drawbacks of tracks; for example, on whether tracks offer flexibility and rigor, or whether they are too restrictive. Surveys indicate that 45% of the attendees’ institutions offer tracks, 32% do not, and 14% have an unofficial track organization. It was largely agreed that although the tracks can be challenging to offer consistently for smaller programs, they offer students a sense of community, shared interest groups and guidance.
Curriculum Modification in a Dynamic Field
Finally, participants discussed processes by which core curricula can be modified to address changes in the BME field. This led to the question ‘how can newer areas of our research missions (such as more growth in synthetic biology and quantitative biology) become aligned with our teaching missions?’ This question was unresolved, but it was recognized that undergraduate students who study these areas in the research lab are very interested in taking undergraduate courses on these topics. It is clear that as departments hire more faculty in cutting-edge areas outside of the conventional core curriculum, they must become integrated and tied to ABET outcomes.