Paschal’s New biomedical classes are ‘engineering in action’

When Cynthia Paschal created a new biomedical engineering service-learning course last fall, she hoped that 15 students would enroll. For the spring 2009 follow-up, she hoped to have 12 students, which would be a manageable number to take on an international project in Guatemala for a week.

Then 46 students registered for the fall semester of BME 290A Service Learning and Leadership. “Three times as many students!” says Paschal, associate professor of biomedical engineering. Clearly interest exceeded capacity. Space was made for 21 students.

Paschal had searched more than a year for ways to involve BME students in international work and service learning, courses that involve students in community service activities while helping them apply the experience to personal and academic development.

One challenge was to find a balance in time and involvement. “Vanderbilt’s VISAGE program is great, but its one-year commitment can be challenging for engineering students who have such demanding curricula,” Paschal says. “I wanted to do something shorter than a year but with more engineering depth and duration than a week-long project.”

Service at home and abroad
Attending a Latin American health initiatives symposium at the Vanderbilt Nursing School in April 2008 helped Paschal configure the course. “I wanted the service learning projects to fit problems in Central America. The need is so great and it’s so close,” she says.

Then in May 2008, Paschal traveled to Guatemala City to visit Manos de Amor, a medical clinic in need of laboratory equipment; the Shalom Surgical Center, a venture involving Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital; and the School of Engineering at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, a private university. The clinic, university and Shalom Foundation would become partners in the on-site international component to take place in spring 2009.

Paschal developed a fall three-credit hour course dedicated to working on projects that could be completed in the Nashville area. BME 290F, a spring course, would be a one-hour credit course involving travel.

Nine organizations were selected to be part of the course based on student interest in the nonprofits’ projects and needs. Service learning projects ranged from repairing equipment for Project C.U.R.E., the largest supplier of donated and surplus medical equipment to the developing world, to creating computer-based training for physicians volunteering at Nashville’s Siloam Family Medical Center. Other projects involved designing a cost-effective ambulance for rural Mexico, researching laboratory options for developing countries, and investigating paper X-rays. One student designed a hand-crank otoscope for use in developing countries. (See related story)

Two students secured donated equipment for the Manos de Amor clinic. Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering Edward White, Paschal and the students in the spring BME class will delivered the collected equipment to Manos de Amor during spring break. While in Guatemala, students work in Hospital San Juan de Dios , a Guatemala City public hospital. They will also give presentations at a mini-conference of engineering students and faculty at the Universidad del Valle. (See related story)

Course adjustment
The fall service learning class required some retooling, Paschal says. “We had a big ‘course correction’ mid-semester.” She laughs at the pun. In addition to the projects and bi-weekly journal entries, the inaugural course had a leadership component offered by invited speakers, role-playing exercises around ethical issues, and sessions devoted to grant writing for nonprofits.

“The workload was just too much,” she says. “Thankfully, the students spoke up and I adjusted the requirements.”

Although the students found the heavy workload problematic, their evaluations at the end of the semester uniformly praised the class and the teacher. They liked the speakers, grant-writing experience and emphasis on metrics. “It was,” they agreed, “a nice change of scenery from the usual engineering classes.”