Impressions From a Recent Visit to a Big Ten University Biomedical Engineering Program.

I was recently invited to give a test lecture as part of an interview at one of the more prestigious universities in the nation.   I had applied for a faculty position and the chair wanted to hear me speak.  I presented my views on the development of a biomedical engineering curriculum that would meet industry needs.  As I spoke I saw nods of agreement and felt that I was on the right track.  There were several questions including one asking me how the curriculum provided by the department could be changed.  I clearly could not answer the question without knowing the current engineering needs of the medical device industry and a detailed knowledge of the curriculum itself.  At the time I had not researched either.  I also don’t make it a habit of providing my services for free.  As time passed I realized that the question was an example of the wide gulf of knowledge that exists on the subject of education within our research intensive biomedical engineering departments.  The question implied that curriculum issues could be addressed with a simple review of the department’s published description of the courses and their suggested sequence.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Anyone attempting to do so without in depth research of industry needs and actual course and laboratory content will only delay the appropriate improvements.  The issue is not just more time in the laboratory as was suggested by some in the department but the alignment of the curriculum to rigorously prepare engineers for a career.  The issue is translating the needs of the targetted industry to a curriculum.

After the presentation the feedback from the chair of the department was that the lecturers were in general agreement with the theme of the presentation, but that it would be a harder sell to the professor’s.  I kept that in mind as I continued my interview.  I found ultimately that the professor’s I spoke with to be generally in agreement that a change needed to be made.  The only differences appeared to be in the degree of change necessary.   I was given a tour of the facilities and as traditional university programs went they appeared pretty typical with oscilloscopes, power supplies, soldering irons, etc.  scattered here and their in purposeful clusters on dedicated workbenches.  The research facilities reminded me of the continuous change that was part of research today.

As I continued to speak with the chair and faculty I gained a deeper appreciation about the forces that were shaping this biomedical engineering program.  Although there was a concern expressed about preparing undergraduates for careers in industry it became clear that pre-med and graduate school preparation were the major focuses of the program.   The available literature that I was given to read between meetings highlighted the fact that the program had a specialized track in pre-med preparation.   I didn’t see the numbers but it was clear from discussions with the chair and faculty that a large majority of undergraduate students went on to apply to either pre-med or graduate school.  As I spoke with the members of the department there was a sense that modifying the curriculum too much might alienate the pre-med students.   I was struck that an engineering program had become so dependent on preparing student for a completely different field of endeavor.  This program appeared dependent to the point that it expended resources creating specialized tracks for pre-med students and apparently made curriculum decisions based on how these students would be impacted.  It seemed to me that splitting the focus between engineering and pre-med was impacting the decision processes of the department to the extent that it was potentially interfering with the success of its engineering graduates.

There are approximately 50 accredited biomedical engineering programs as compared to hundreds of pre-med tracks embedded in education programs as varied as psychology and chemistry in universities throughout the nation.  The competition to get into medical school is very intense with only a small percentage of the applicants meeting the grade.  As a result not every graduate will make the cut.  Clearly their undergraduate preparation should give them a fall back position.  This particular program’s undergraduates were having a difficult time obtaining positions in corporations.

Unfortunately this is an old story for biomedical engineering programs and it has concerned me for over 10 years.  During this period I have heard the issue articulated during Biomedical Engineering Society and other meetings in the Chicago area as recently as a few months ago.  The story was repeating itself as this particular biomedical engineering program’s baccaulareate graduates were having considerable difficulty obtaining positions in the healthcare product industry.  The chair felt that the poor results were because of poor marketing to industry.  I found that hard to believe given the stature of the university and the need for well prepared engineers in the medical device and pharmaceutical industry.  Corporate recruiters would be well aware of a new biomedical engineering department.  Corporate hiring managers would also be well aware of the deficiencies in preparation that can occur in BME curricula.  The issue is that there should be no deficiencies.  With appropriate research and curriculum focus few if any graduates from a BME program should encounter difficulties finding a position other than those imposed by market forces.  My experience as Program Director at DeVry of the Biomedical Engineering Technology demonstrated to me that if a completely new program created graduates that met the medical industry’s needs it would succeed from the very beginning.  The program was successful with 85% of its first graduates obtaining positions in their field within six months.  If the graduate has the skills the engineering hiring manager needs they will be hired.

During the interview process I gave the chair and faculty some clues where to look for BME curricula that would be examples for them to follow.  The concerns about preparing B.S. graduates for a career in either the medical device or healthcare delivery industry expressed by the lecturers and faculty were genuine.  However, given the realities of meeting the departments research needs and its apparent preoccupation with the premed students I have to wonder how well they will be addressed.  I hope they follow up for their students sake.  I did not feel confident that would be the case as I left the interview.

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