There is a small group of classes in every curriculum for any major at any school that is commonly referred as “weed-out” courses. The undergraduate Biomedical Engineering program at the Wallace H. Coulter Department at Georgia Tech and Emory University has a handful of notoriously challenging courses, particularly BMED 2210 (Conservation Principles in Biomedical Engineering), 3110 (Quantitative Engineering Physiology Lab I), and 3610 (Quantitative Engineering Physiology II). These three courses have earned reputations as the most frustrating, rigorous, and terrifying courses that undergraduates in the Coulter Department must face. Both students and faculty have weighed in on why students perceive these courses as intimidating, how to overcome the challenges presented, what to take away from the courses, and how they may be improved.
BMED 2210, Conservation Principles in Biomedical Engineering, is the Coulter Department’s own spin on introductory Chemical Engineering with mass and energy transfer problem solving. The course was initially developed by Dr. Joseph Le Doux, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies & Associate Professor in the Coulter Department, as BMED 3200, a three-hour primer on biological thermodynamics. The original 3200 course, which required exposure to differential equations, was recognized as too ambitious and was sized down to BMED 2200, and later BMED 2210. Despite these changes, Le Doux says the class has “always been a struggle for people, but the general flavor […] has always been the same: to teach people how to think like an engineer and use basic tools to solve structured problems.”
Le Doux has some valuable words of advice on how to increase the likelihood of success in the course. He says that students should try to study the material three days in advance, especially for a test. He encourages students to actively read the text while working out each example problem. It is a good idea for students to quiz themselves, being very analytical about where and why they fail, and to have a plan of attack to address weaknesses. He also encourages spending time studying for the class away from distractions and interruptions. For students who still struggle, Le Doux suggests developing a better “metacognition.” He describes this as “thinking about learning, how learning occurs, and how effective different methods are.” Students must be their own toughest critics, thoroughly examining their successes and failures and thinking more critically and analytically about learning.
BMED 3110 and 3610, the Quantitative Engineering Physiology Labs, have gained notoriety in their heavy focus on independent learning and open ended problem sets. The two courses began as supplemental instructional labs. Dr. Esfandiar Behravesh, Instructional Lab Director in the Coulter Department and professor for both classes, explains that the old labs were run much like traditional biology labs where students would learn common lab protocol. The BME department has since developed a problem and project based approach along with a mixture of physiology, biology, and engineering.
Behravesh explains that the primary roles of BMED 3110 and 3610 are to help students reinforce what has been taught in lecture based courses and “to not teach you a whole lot of new things but try to incorporate [key concepts] in a hands-on way.” He also stresses that these labs leave the bulk of the learning up to the students, allowing them to generally function autonomously while completing labs or pursuing independent projects. Behravesh stresses how important it is for students to plan ahead, explaining that “if [they] plan it, I’ll help [them] implement it.” For freshmen, sophomores, and early juniors, Behravesh says to “figure out what is supposed to be learned in the class at the end of the day, make sure it’s actually learned, and be honest to yourself and others about whether it’s been accomplished.”
Persevering through the biomedical engineering curriculum is challenging, and BMED 2210, 3110, and 3610 exemplify the difficulties inherent in developing the conceptual understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, and engineering as well as the ability to apply such concepts in the context of real world problems. Behravesh points out “learning how to figure out what is important is part of what BME is all about because nobody can know everything.” He hopes that the professors are encouraging students to “dig deeper” into each subject. The Notorious 10’s will always be infamous; they are courses that capture the essence of what it is to be a biomedical engineer, forcing students to adopt novel approaches and methods of thinking. However difficult, these courses are essential for students’ transformation into biomedical engineers.