Friday, April 29, 2011

InvenTeams or Bust

Our group has an application in for a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams grant and we'll find out May 6 if we win! We submitted our multi multi part proposal April 22nd for this extremely cool program run through a partnership between the Lemelson Foundation and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Too excited to wait. Even if we don't get it it's been an awesome learning experience and a chance to give students a leadership and brainstorming role - we had to document a potential invention - and we'll try again next year! I'll keep everyone posted!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Use Less by Makedo-ing More

Photo credit retrieved 4/27/11, © Makedo and Paul Justin

We're now starting a multi-part unit on green engineering and STEM concepts that is similar to the Sugru challenge (see posts from Febr.). We've got eco-things to learn and a large-scale project to design, all tied into the science and technology surrounding the environment. Now, before your eyes begin to glaze over at the thought of an environmental lecture and guilt-trip into recycling, give me just a minute. I am just like anyone out there. I recycle when it's convenient, try to reuse things, watch what I throw down the drain but definitely could do a better job of being eco-friendly.

What I find over and over again with my students, though, is that inspiring them to take hold of concepts through fun activities is much more effective than trying to grind subject matter into them. I'm taking a cue from them right now as I've recently been very moved to think differently about the materials I use and then discard. Learning doesn't always have to taste like fish oil. Sometimes it can taste like popcorn.

Our new partner in this effort is the awesome Australian company Makedo. Makedo describes themselves as "inspiring social change through playful creativity". They make a set of universal connectors and hinges that can transform a pile of paper into a toy, bird or a car (my own kids love their gallery of creations). Makedo is especially fond of cool designs and collaboration. We've got enough of their universal connectors and tools for all thirty engineering students and any others who are interested in making something BIG and FUN out of materials that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Makedo and STEM concepts came together in yesterday's lesson:

Students learned facts about the size and scale of human trash production, like how humans generate more than four pounds per person per day. We also ran through the complete life cycle of cardboard: beginning with fast-growing pine trees trunks, wood pulp is shredded, "digested" by sodium hydroxide to break up wood fibers and then pressed, rolled and dried into sheets or shapes. Once used, cardboard can be stuck back into digesters with fresh wood pulp and reused (as long as it doesn't have plastic coating on it). We named and discussed local recyclers like Van der Linde that offer single-stream recycling.

Finally, they practiced the design cycle using Makedo connectors and reusable materials from my home, which were cardboard, plastic bottles, caps and grocery paper bags. Their goal was to make a pet or creature in only 15 minutes using only Makedo and the recyclables.

If you want to explore more, see these links:

Common recycling facts

How corrugated cardboard is made

Recycling cardboard

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Biomedical Engineering: more than just Frankenfruit

How can a debate of the relative strengths between Chewbacca and Yoda help students learn?

Ask David Chen, faculty member at the University of Virginia Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). David was our third guest speaker for the year and brought stories, descriptions of current research, and some fun to our class. He heads UVa's partnership with the Coulter Foundation to support translational research (making scientific discoveries and bringing them into real-world situations). As I've mentioned before, lack of knowledge of current careers and research in engineering is often a barrier to choosing to study engineering. In his engaging way, David helped take down a few more barriers for this group of students.

David started off by dividing class into two teams. Each team had to pick and defend a superhero with uncommon strength, skill or special powers. One team picked Yoda, the other, a hundred Chewbaccas. Who would win if they fought? Why? What are some traits that are biologically different? Could you combine genes to make a Yobacca, or Chewyoda? Would it be right to do so? After the laughter died down from picturing Yoda using the force on a giant circle of Wookies (I know they're on the same side, silly) David drew parallels between the discussion and modern biomedical engineering.

He described a field that bridges medicine, biology, materials science and engineering, a field where you quite possibly could take desirable properties of one element and combine them with another.

A BME might listen to a surgeon describing a need for a surgical tool. A BME could understand the problem, then apply his or her knowledge of biology and design to create and test a new medical technology.

BME's also grow skin cells and tissue for grafts, study ways to improve prosthetics, or generate strains of crops that are drought resistant or have special properties (example: frankenfruit).

Biomedical engineering is filled with ethical debates on stem cell use, genetically modified foods and cloning. David helpfully told us that the embryonic stem cell debate is lessening because there are alternate, ethically preferable sources of stem cells coming into use from adults or umbilical cord blood.

Bio-medical engineering is an excellent example of a cross-disciplinary career that is changing and developing quickly due to its young age. Thanks again to David Chen.

Check out these links for further exploration.

Homepage of the University of Virginia Biomedical Engineering Department. There are easy to find tabs for people, research, news, and contact information. Look at what they are studying in tissues, imaging or cardiovascular engineering.

Frequently Asked Questions about biomedical engineering from the Biomedical Engineering Society. This page has a nice summary of specialty areas within Biomedical Engineering including bioinstrumentation, biomaterials, biomechanics, rehabilitation engineering, medical imaging and systems physiology.

If the conversations about ethics in biomedical engineering interested you, you might want to browse the National Society of Professional Engineer's Code of Ethics. Just as doctors must "first, do no harm", professional engineers must "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.
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