In Professor Richard Foulds’ freshman design class, students perform angioplasty on pasta, amniocentesis on jelly donuts and surgery on hot dogs.
The students love both the surgeries and the unorthodox teaching methods of Foulds, who pioneered a new way to educate engineers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).
With this new approach, known as the studio method, professors teach the fundamentals of engineering not by theoretical lecture and dry recitation but by active learning. Studio learning is an alternative, Foulds says, to the conventional way of educating engineers: commonly a lecture, followed by a recitation and a lab experiment.
Using the studio method, a professor starts class with a mini-lecture that touches upon the assigned reading. The lecture is followed by in-class studio exercises, such as the mock surgeries. Students divide into teams to do the exercises and the professor stays with them in the studio, offering coaching and mentoring. The studio method was first used in architecture schools, Foulds notes. He and his colleagues adapted and appropriated the method for engineering classes.
“Our students love studio learning,” said Foulds, PhD, an associate professor of biomedical engineering. “You will never see students, in my studio classes, asleep in the back of the room. You’ll see their faces lit up with curiosity, inquiry and an active desire to learn.”
Foulds’ innovative teaching has not gone unnoticed. The NJIT Student Senate recently named him Teacher of the Year. He was selected from more than 400 professors. Foulds is a prominent figure in the emerging field of biomedical engineering. He is a Founding Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and a Fellow of the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of America. But those two fellowships, in Foulds’ eyes, pale in comparison to his most recent award.
“Being named Teacher of the Year is the most important award I have ever received - topping my two national Fellow selections - since it reflects the feelings of our students,” said Foulds. “It tells me that I have done the job I came here to do and that our students appreciate my efforts. Nothing could make me happier.”
Foulds was so pleased with having introduced the studio method to NJIT that he, along with two colleagues, published a paper, “Integrated Biomedical Engineering Education Using Studio-Based Learning,” in the August 2003 issue of IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine.
He also received three grants to help him implement the studio method. The Whitaker Foundation provided a $30,000 grant to plan the studio concept. The National Science Foundation provided a $100,000 grant to develop studio courses, including the robot surgery class. And the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education funded the purchase of high-tech biomedical equipment used in the two studios.
Maggie Vallejos, a biomedical engineering major and past president of the Student Senate, nominated Foulds for the teaching award.
“Professor Foulds has such a passion for biomedical engineering,” Vallejos said, “that he cannot help but pass that love to his students. Before I came to NJIT as a freshman, he sent me a wonderful three-page email explaining what biomedical engineering is, and he didn’t even know me. That’s how dedicated he is to teaching and to his students.”
And it’s students like Vallejos who benefit most from Foulds’ studio method.
One afternoon in Foulds’ freshman design class, students worked happily in teams, building surgical robots to assist them with their food surgeries. Foulds darted from team to team, coaching the students on their robots. The class was alive with the hum of vivid discussions. The mock surgeries, performed on the pasta and other edibles, teach students how to use technology to assist surgeons, said Foulds. The students must first design robots that will perform certain tasks, such as reattaching the tip of a hot dog, which simulates surgery on an amputated finger. They then build the robots using LEGO Mindstorm kits, which have about 1,000 gears, levers, motors and sensors.
It’s a fun exercise with a serious purpose. Surgical robots will play a critical role in the future of medicine, allowing surgeons to not only be more precise, but to routinely perform operations from remote locations, said Foulds.
“The studio method is a much more intriguing way to learn,” said Dennis Den Hollander, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering. “It is hands-on learning, and it shows you the process engineers go through when they’re designing something. It’s a much more active way to learn. You learn not because a professor tells you, or lectures you, about something. You learn because you find answers by trial and error, by experimenting.”
The two studios in which the classes are taught are equipped with sophisticated equipment. The studios are wired for the Internet and multimedia equipment and are furnished with ten PC-based lab stations that serve groups of students. The studios also have customized biomedical equipment such as amplifiers, oscilloscopes, power supplies, function generators and multi-meters.
The studio classes are sometimes taught by two professors. On this day, Bruno Mantilla, a special lecturer of biomedical engineering, taught the freshman design class with Foulds. Before coming to NJIT, Mantilla worked for 15 years as a neurosurgeon. He knows, from experience, how engineers can help doctors develop new medical technology. And he knows how to teach those techniques to students.
As the studio class drew to a close, Mantilla paused to comment on the superiority of the studio method.
“Children are naturally inquisitive, creative,” says Mantilla. “They ask questions. They explore the world with their hands. Yet too often when they get older and start school they are told, ‘Stop asking questions, stop touching and start learning.’ That attitude kills learning. In our studio classes we ask our students to be creative, to drop all their pre-conceived notions of what engineering is and to come up with new ideas. It’s really about creativity, which college students naturally possess. Their creativity just needs to be tapped; that’s exactly what the studio method does.”