Over the course of this challenge students learn that they are not trying to uncover how the world works, as they would in science. Rather, they learn the design process of transforming an idea into reality.

Some days, paper shreddings litter the floor of Joe Tranquillo's classroom. They are neither a sign of sloppiness nor an office cleanup gone awry. Rather, they are a byproduct of a student exercise the associate professor of biomedical engineering calls "kinesthetic learning."

"Professors often use analogies to demonstrate an engineering concept," says Tranquillo, "or they teach by having their students learn by doing, as when they design and build a medical device. But we can also combine these two techniques together by using physical activities to demonstrate a concept."

Kinesthetic learning can help students understand how electrical signals get from one place to another within brain cells, for example. Instead of spending a week lecturing on the heavy-duty mathematics behind brain signals, and having students take notes as they try to wrap their minds around the concept, Tranquillo introduces the subject by having students act as if they are neurons. The students line up in the classroom, passing a clump of paper shreddings from one to the next, in an activity similar to a game of telephone.

"They learn that some hands can hold more paper, just like some parts of the neuron can hold and transmit more current than others," says Tranquillo. "And they see that, like neurons, some people work more quickly than others." || Ask the Experts: Tranquillo on brain switches

Through the exercise, students realize they can measure how much of the "signal" made it to the end of the line, and they begin to understand what happens when the game of telephone starts to break down - as it does with diseases affecting the brain, including multiple sclerosis. "After the physical demonstration, we can get into the nitty-gritty mathematics of neural signals," says Tranquillo, who has presented this teaching approach to colleagues at national conferences.

Another of Tranquillo's novel teaching methods is Design Boot Camp. To highlight the fundamentals of engineering design, Tranquillo breaks his class into teams. All have the same task - such as designing a drug infusion device for use in the developing world. All are also given the same constraints: The design must cost less than $25 and use materials available at local stores. "We should be able to press 'go,' walk away for 10 minutes, and the device will infuse at a steady rate," says Tranquillo.

"Over the course of this challenge students learn that they are not trying to uncover how the world works, as they would in science," he says. "Rather, they learn the design process of transforming an idea into reality."

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Posted Sept. 20, 2011

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