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Hands-on learning in a virtual world

June 15, 2021
A professor is in a lab teaching virtually to a screen of students on Zoom.

Web Stayman was preparing to teach his Build an Imager course when the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdown hit in March 2020, quickly forcing Johns Hopkins and other universities to cancel in-person classes. So Stayman did what any innovative engineer would do: grabbed one of the instrument systems used in class to bring home and taught all labs from his living room over Zoom.

In the course, junior-level students typically work hands-on in small groups, using components such as microscopes, optical tubes, slides with test patterns, and digital cameras to create their own imaging systems, says Stayman, an associate professor of biomedical engineering. The work involves plenty of tactile tinkering, such as manually turning knobs or changing filters by hand. To approximate that experience during distance learning, Stayman presented some information, then had students direct him during experiments while classmates followed along on their screens at home.

While that worked OK to get through the semester, as the pandemic raged on, Stayman and co-instructor Grace Gang, an assistant research professor of biomedical engineering, began thinking more creatively about how to revamp for January 2021. The BME master’s program already had space at 2701 N. Charles St. it was intending to use in the same way as the campus’ popular Clark Hall Design Studio, where teams of students have open space to collaborate on engineering projects. What if the room at 2701 N. Charles could be repurposed by equipping it with instrument systems that students could study and control remotely?

Collaborating with Tom Benassi, lab manager for the Design Studio, and their teaching assistants, Stayman and Gang spent the last months of 2020 customizing their hardware set-ups. Calling on their own engineering experience—and some trial and error—they designed new geared knobs out of plastic using a 3-D printer, laser cut plastic platforms to support the structures for remote viewing, connected multiple webcams for different viewpoints, and added small, durable motors normally used for remote control cars and planes. They also connected laptop computers with plugs for some of the devices wired to a circuit board, allowing students to remotely reboot, or turn them on and off, and wrote their own code to account for these virtual commands.

The first days of the course provided an additional test, when some printed gears didn’t turn as needed. Over the weekend, Stayman and Gang went back to the 3-D printer, redesigning the gears with bigger teeth so they would better interlock and turn.

In all, they set up four work stations for this course, with four more for another course called Imaging Instrumentation, as well as a teaching space with a laptop, table, projectors, and cameras. During the spring semester 2021, in Build an Imager, 48 students in groups of three worked together in Zoom breakout rooms, accessing work stations remotely to learn via experimentation how to collect good images through lighting and focus control. They also verified theoretical system models that students used to redesign their microscopes for specific imaging goals. During class hours, Stayman, Gang, and their teaching assistant, Esme Zhang, went from breakout room to room, checking on their progress and helping them troubleshoot. A 24/7 online schedule allowed students to sign up for extra time as desired.

A composite photo shows three people in a digital imaging lab.

While challenging, the work was “a labor of love,” Stayman says, and students appreciated the hands-on opportunities it offered. “What I liked about it was even though the students may have been in Hawaii or other locations, they were doing the work,” he says. “They were making the components move, they were collecting the data, taking it home and processing it, and giving us the answers.”

This is just one example of how BME professors rapidly improvised and adjusted their courses to ensure continued, hands-on learning for their students. Some, including instructors for courses such as Computational Medicine: Cardiology Lab; Biomedical Engineering and Design; Introduction to Rehabilitation Engineering; and Introduction to Instrumentation, arranged to send project kits to students’ homes to keep them engaged.

Building Circuits for Personal Electrocardiograms

One such instructor was Eileen Haase, an associate teaching professor. When the pandemic hit, she had to quickly adjust her freshman course, BME Basecamp, to an online format. The course typically asks students to create a project in the lab; instead, she and her students discussed the idea of an app they could create at home.

“They really weren’t able to build anything, which was frustrating,” Haase says. “A lot of the design process is iterative—building and testing, re-building and re-testing—and the freshmen could not do that unless they had the materials themselves.”

As a result of experiences faced that first pandemic semester, she worked assiduously to get a more hands-on experience ready for fall. Haase redesigned the course, pulling some lectures she already had created for a Biomedical Engineering Innovation course for high school students. She also worked with a Pennsylvania-based company to send custom engineering kits with bread boards, microprocessors, resistors, volt meters, and other parts to students worldwide so they could build a temperature sensor and another biosensor from home, working in teams online.

“Since we had very limited time to get all this available, I took advantage of online modules from other courses that had already been tested, and adapted them for our BME undergrads,” Haase says. “I had some phenomenal TAs I worked with on this transition, so I can’t take all the credit. Our goal was to make sure our students had a genuine, hands-on experience.”

In her junior-level Computational Medicine Cardiology Lab, Haase normally used frogs during labs so that students could study beating hearts. Since that would not have worked for the course’s online version, Haase pulled some talks and materials from Johns Hopkins’ Engineering for Professionals online curriculum, and had custom electronics kits sent to students so they, too, could work from home. During the course, students built circuits to measure their hearts’ electrical activity, which could be analyzed and displayed as an electrocardiogram (ECG) using the programming language MATLAB.

“They never had to build their own circuit before to acquire their ECG,” Haase says. “Students told me that obtaining their own ECG was ‘cool,’ ‘incredibly fun,’ and ‘the only hands-on project’ they had all semester. That’s the essence of BME, to get data from living tissue into a computer, so they reported the project made them really feel like an engineer.”

However, just when Haase thought she had everything worked out, new wrinkles appeared. The kit company was waiting on parts from China, which were delayed due to the pandemic, forcing Haase to extend or rework some deadlines. Students had to learn troubleshooting skills and patiently redo parts of their circuit if resistors or other parts broke during the build process.

“I had been used to teaching online because I teach with Engineering for Professionals, but to have to suddenly put so many courses online was extremely challenging,” she says. “It was the most exhausting year of my life. There were some times I didn’t think I would be able to do it all. It really helped to know there were resources within the Engineering for Professionals and Engineering Innovations programs I could use, such as professionally developed online videos, quizzes, and materials lists that I could pull from to help put together stimulating lab classes relatively quickly.”

The mail-home kits helped teams gain valuable hands-on experiences and get a taste of the practical aspects of the design process, from brainstorming ideas and writing codes to building circuits and setting up the boards and sensors, said Peggy Li, a first-year undergraduate student. Her team worked extensively with an obstacle sensor using an infrared light to detect the number of people and objects that pass by. They also did some coding so an attached LED light would turn on and change colors as more objects passed it.

“Our overall design idea was to model a COVID-19 population density sensor, where the sensor could be installed in buildings and provide real-time data on how many people are inside as to help individuals avoid large indoor crowds,” Li said. “I’m really grateful that I got to work with these kits even at home, and I definitely felt that putting what we learned into practice helped to both solidify my understandings of concepts and make the course more fun and interactive.”

Haase also shared her tips with other colleagues. Instructors with the Cell and Tissue Engineering Lab pulled materials from the Engineering for Professionals Cell and Tissue Engineering course to pivot some of their classes from in-person to online, too.

Creating a New Course

Three students and one professor are wearing scrubs in the hall of a hospital with a computer showing more students on a Zoom meeting.

Jeff Siewerdsen, the John C. Malone Professor of biomedical engineering, computer science, radiology, and neurosurgery, took a different approach to the challenges of teaching in a pandemic—devising a brand new course for graduate students.

About three years ago, Siewerdsen introduced Surgery for Engineers into the fall semester curriculum, to rave reviews. The course takes students downtown to the Johns Hopkins medical campus, where they change into scrubs and learn the fundamental principles of surgery as it relates to engineers looking to innovate. They study technologies and ongoing challenges in anesthesia, basic and advanced surgical procedures, and other aspects of operating room workflow. They also examine the workings of everything from basic surgical instruments to cutting-edge surgical robots, then practice maneuvers on cadavers or other surgical models. It’s a lead-in to a spring course called Surgineering, in which students develop solutions or innovations for issues they observed during their six weeks of clinical immersion.

With the hospital prohibiting visitors during the pandemic, Siewerdsen racked his brain from March through the summer of 2020 thinking about how to re-tool.

“There’s no good way to teach that kind of hands-on activity remotely,” he says. “You can put a webcam on a crane, and I can pretend to be your hands and you tell me what to do, but you have to develop the hands-on experience yourself…Surgery is not theoretical. If I tried to pivot within that context, the course would lose everything that’s special about it.”

Finally, he reached his eureka moment: He could instead teach Radiology for Engineers, moving from a discipline that’s intrinsically tactile to one which nowadays is intrinsically digital.

“Radiology as a discipline involves much less hands-on interaction and tactile experience,” Siewerdsen says. “It involves a lot of principles of physics, medical imaging technologies, and image interpretation, which is different across a dozen subspecialties.”

With help from neuroradiologist Nafi Aygun and interventional radiologist Cliff Weiss, who became course co-directors, Siewerdsen worked with 20 radiology experts to address the 30 students who enrolled. He set up a digital teaching studio in the hospital and was granted a special exception to allow between three and six students to come to class live if a particular lesson would be more beneficial with a hands-on component, which happened about six times during the semester. “Most every student who was still in Baltimore during the pandemic wanted a chance to come in,” he says.

As an added bonus, radiology technologists contributed to the course, sharing their expertise with the nuances of the scanners and devices, just as nurses, scrub technicians, and vendor representatives had contributed to Surgery for Engineers.

During classes, the students who attended in-person got to work hands-on with a computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging scanner, study ultrasound machines, and spend time in the interventional radiology suite and view catheters under X-ray imaging, while classmates Zoomed in. Overall, responses on student surveys were so positive that Siewerdsen is planning to keep the class.

“With the goodwill of clinical collaborators, we totally pulled it off,” he says. “In the end, it was a challenge, but we cleared the bar by a mile.”

Post-pandemic opportunities

These and other professors’ ingenuity sprang from necessity. But some of the professors believe that the new tweaks will serve them and their students well over the next few years.

For example, while Stayman was pivoting Build an Imager, he also reworked Imaging Instrumentation. Four work stations in the 2701 N. Charles St. space connected to laptop computers feature cameras and filters focused on acrylic boxes containing tubes and liquids to simulate the inner workings of a computed tomography machine. From home, working in teams, students delved more deeply into how cameras work and what their limitations were, and designed a control system to allow for the best images.

“One of the wonderful things about doing this [building remote set-ups] is it is something that won’t disappear post-pandemic,” Stayman says. “This is something that actually scales really well.”

A professor in scrubs and a mask is teaching to a virtual classroom over Zoom.

One possible use for that setup is for Stayman and colleagues to build extra work stations to accommodate additional projects for students in the school’s Engineering for Professionals program, which is largely taught through remote learning.

Haase says the take-home kits were so popular among both freshmen and juniors that she is going to find a way to incorporate them even after full-time, face-to-face learning resumes.

And because Radiology for Engineers was so popular, Siewerdsen already has it on the course catalog for fall 2021. He plans to alternate courses over the next few years, teaching Surgery for Engineers one year and Radiology for Engineers the next, with both courses providing the in-depth understanding of clinical challenges necessary to stoke the fire for creating novel solutions during the Surgineering class in the spring.

“Whether the feeder course is Surgery for Engineers or Radiology for Engineers, they’re both great and both get at the concept that we’re driving at, which is real clinical exposure, understanding of real clinical problems, and students working with real doctors in real clinical pathways in the hospital,” Siewerdsen says.

– Karen Blum

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