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Biomedical Engineers in 7th Grade, by Larisa Pender-Healy

Guest post from Larisa Pender-Healy, Middle School Faculty. This is the first post of a series.

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Mount Vernon Capstone Design Project: The Birth Story

I learned a very important fact at a Research & Design science team meeting last year: our students have one opportunity to learn the basics of human anatomy… and that is in seventh grade. If students become passionate about this subject, then they have the choice to take an additional elective course in the upper school. My immediate thought was, how amazing would it be if I could inspire every 7th grade student to continue solving problems in the biomedical realm?

I need to clear my conscience before continuing to tell you the birth story of the Mount Vernon Capstone Design Project. I have a somewhat self-serving point of view when it comes to teaching. Every time that I prepare a new unit I ask myself, what kind of problems do I want my students to be prepared to solve for me in the future? I decided that my future problem for this unit on human body systems will be that I want to live forever! Biomedical engineering was the first discipline to come to my mind.

I have a wide knowledge base, but when it comes to planning a unit on biomedical engineering I felt a little bit like a fish out of water. The first thing I needed to do was find experts to help boost my knowledge bank on the subject matter. While teaching a summer course at Georgia Tech I decided to engage every person that agreed to have a conversation with me. Long story short, I was connected with a biomedical engineering postdoc student from Emory, Joan. We met up for coffee and I picked his brain. That single conversation morphed into a beautiful collaboration with five biomedical engineering graduate students from Emory and Georgia Tech. We designed a unit that is modeled after a senior engineering capstone design project and is a hybrid between a PBL and a design thinking challenge. Students are given a design challenge and tasked to create a working prototype given certain parameters. Each class period is provided with a different challenge and one of the graduate students as their external expert. In a traditional capstone design project the groups showcase their work at an expo. Similarly, our team has decided that one winning team from each class period will gain a spot at the Buzz on Biotech showcase that is held on October 28th at the Georgia Tech campus. This showcase is the largest biomedical engineering expo in the United States for middle and high school students.

I want to leave you with this little golden nugget. Do not shy away from planning a unit just because you don’t feel like an expert in that field. As drivers of the first Mount Vernon Capstone Design Project, my students will forever have a reference for solving unique problems. They have no clue that I am learning alongside them. After all, that is what the experts are for.

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