In this manuscript we describe an innovation in BME education, and present objective data that begins to assess the value of our program. Specifically, we sought to understand: (1) the impact of an out-of-class course on BME students, (2) how an out-of-class course contributes to the entrepreneurial mindset of BME students, and (3) the educational impact of our hands-on STEM activities to the PSs. By examining the UTs survey responses, we can increase the impact of BME HealthReach, thereby providing the BME students with additional opportunities to engage in the community and enhance their social value.
One of the missions of our BME department is to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset by fostering curiosity, making connections by placing old ideas into new contexts, and creating value. A tenet of this entrepreneurial mindset is creating value and having an impact; within our program, this involves UTs teaching others and creating social value for the children in the UTs’ community. In the course pre-survey, 49% of UTs reported “teaching” (i.e. sharing knowledge) as their main objectives for participating in the course, and in the post-survey, 68% listed “teaching” as the value the course provided. These responses highlight the importance of incorporating learn and teaching skills into the BME HealthReach course content. As such, course lectures were bolstered to include additional content related to design thinking processes, learning styles (visual, auditory, read/write, and kinetic15) and how to incorporate different learning approaches into the activities, communicating a complex topic in a clear simple manner, effective use of analogies, and incorporation of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The course also follows the traditional medical school pedagogy, “see one, do one, teach one”12 where teaching is used to reinforce learning. Here the UTs solidify their own skills and knowledge as they design and teach complex STEM topics through hands-on interactive activities.
While we have presented initial findings that support the value of this program, we find that the direct quotes from the UTs’ post-survey responses to Q3 provide additional invaluable insight into the value of BME HealthReach:
“I have learned when teaching a new topic with a patient, it makes sense to understand the underlying topics, understand the basics from the beginning. I have also found that this skill applies to my own course work.”
“I also learned a lot about altering explanations and teaching methods to different audiences, which is an extremely useful life skill. At volunteer events, you could be teaching the blood jar to an 8th grader who has some background knowledge and can understand the concept on a deeper level, then the next student could be 5 years old, and you immediately must alter your explanation to someone who probably does not know anything about blood other than the fact that it is red. This is an important skill because whatever you end up doing in life, you will have to explain your work to different audiences and establish the most effective way to get your point across to a specific group of people.”
“I have become more adaptable, especially in novel situations. Each time I work with a new patient I must quickly assess how much they know, where their interests lie, and what the most effective way for teaching an activity will be. I am grateful to be developing these skills now, as they are integral in medicine, and I will utilize them daily in my career.”
“With each volunteer event, I surprised myself with how good I was at breaking down difficult problems and concepts into much simpler terms. Whenever a student had a question, I was able to easily make an analogy to make that connection between the material and a simple example.”
Another main educational objective listed by the UTs in pre-Q1 was improving their communication skills, specifically improving their comfort communicating to various audiences and their ability to simplify complex topics. As was stated in the ASEE’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in Engineering report,22 “communication skills are critical for both life and a successful career… academia can introduce key concepts and can model communication skills in group projects. The skills should be integrated directly in the core engineering curriculum and not be taught in a separate course outside of engineering. Students should be presented with opportunities and encouraged to work on their communication skills, getting feedback all along the way.” Our course continually integrates communication skills through the design thinking process, during class discussions, activity presentations, practice activity teaching sessions, and at outreach events. At the outreach events, the UTs teach the activity either in a 1-on-1 session or in small groups, learning in real-time how to communicate with their audience effectively and succinctly.
As mentioned previously, the three elements of the Entrepreneurial Mindset are curiosity, connections and creating value.10 The ample out-of-class community outreach opportunities offered throughout the semester allow the UTs to teach and foster social value/relationship creation. The UTs reflected on creating their own social value through volunteering and interacting with children. Specifically, they stated the greatest assets of our program were: the opportunities to interact with children, seeing the influence their teaching has, and learning outside of the traditional engineering curriculum while achieving their main objective of teaching—sharing knowledge.
The following are direct quotes from the UT’s post-survey response Q3:
“This class has made me appreciate being able to see the direct impact we can have on the community and our ability to help others. I have also learned important communication skills in this class. It is amazing how knowing how to explain concepts to kids can be helpful in the real world, even in my other courses. I find that it is easier for me to explain to a professor or a friend what is confusing me about certain concepts. It is also easier for me to explain how to do a problem to a friend and make sure they fully understand the material.”
“I have learned that I enjoy being able to make an impact on children. What makes me a better student is that this class has motivated me to want to work harder in school because I can share my knowledge to the younger generation.”
The responses to the self-reflection (Post Q3) provided a richer view into the positive impact the course provided to the UTs, both through social value with creating meaningful interactions with school-aged children and as they learned what makes them better engineering students. Specifically, 21% reflected on the creative outlet the course provided them, as described in the following quotes:
“I've learned that I'm incredibly creative when it comes to designing activities. It has made me a better student by forcing me to build time into my schedule to volunteer that I wouldn't have set aside otherwise. This class allowed me to combine my passion for biomedical engineering with my passion for volunteering.”
“I have learned that coming up with creative ways to remember/learn things help a lot in making a topic understandable. I have started using this in other classes to break complex topics down into simple ones to make the material easy to learn and make me a better student.”
“I was able to learn how to think creatively again. That part of my mind has been stifled. I was able to think outside of the box and engage in projects that are different than what I typically get to work on. This makes me a better student because I can use this thinking process to be creative in my future projects and hopefully in my career. I also learned how to interact with children better and find ways to explain complex ideas to 5-year-olds.”
These quotes articulate the deep impact and necessity a design thinking course with out-of-class community outreach provides, and how social value is created through a non-traditional engineering course. Additionally, these self-reflection responses highlight that BME HealthReach also inspire the other 2 basic tenets of the entrepreneurial mindset—curiosity and connections. Through creating their own STEM activities, the UTs can be curious and explore interesting ways to teach STEM through hands-on activities. The course aligns with “connections,” bringing together the student’s knowledge and interest in engineering with volunteering and sharing their knowledge through teaching. Therefore, the course directly aligns with the mission to inspire the entrepreneurial mindset.
Verbal feedback from patients and their families has been overwhelmingly positive: they state that the STEM activities are “fun” and “engaging,” and many PSs, parents, and medical providers have requested that the UTs return the following day. However, quantitatively evaluating mastery of learning objectives is critical to BME HealthReach’s long-term success as an educational outreach program at the hospital. Our educational assessment sought to determine the percentage of PSs that achieved the highest level of understanding—the score of “Thoroughly Demonstrated”—for our STEM activities.
Our results show that at minimum 68% of PSs in 6th grade and above “Thoroughly Demonstrated” understanding of the STEM topics taught in all activities, while K to 2nd and 3rd to 5th grade PSs did not achieve that level of understanding. However, lower scores for those patients were due primarily to difficulties remembering new scientific vocabulary. For example, it may have been the first time they heard the words “platelet” or “plasma.” Future work will modify both the learning objectives and assessment questions, to be grade appropriate.
One limitation of this learning objective evaluation is that the assessment questions are asked shortly after activity completion, therefore there is no long-term knowledge retention tracking. To that end, because our population comprises of children with chronic illnesses who frequent the hospital, we will assess long-term knowledge retention of the activities in future school years and add in new STEM activities created by the UTs.
Overall, BME HealthReach represents an innovative and novel approach for STEM education with direct benefits to BME students and K-12 students. Specifically, BME HealthReach: (1) allows UTs to participate in the design thinking cycle that focuses on making connections between their university course work and activity creation, sparks their curiosity to design engaging educational STEM activities, and creates social value/relationships through volunteering in the community; (2) leverages the pediatric patient’s own medical experience as motivation and a springboard for both activity design and learning; (3) develops hands-on interactive activities to introduce and teach STEM concepts adaptable to the pediatric patient’s cognitive level; (4) provides the UTs with high quality, meaningful pediatric patient interactions and clinical experiences; (5) fosters social value and relationship building among everyone involved; (6) provides innovative K-12 educational programming; and (7) provides out-of-class experiences to the engineering curriculum. We envision BME HealthReach as a model framework for other BME undergraduate programs, providing innovative K-12 STEM education to pediatric hospitals nationwide.