(668e) Biomolecular Engineering - Case Studies and Web-Access Exams

Curtis, B. S., UC Berkeley
Curtis, W. R., The Pennsylvania State University

SUMMARY:  In 2004, an educational experiment was undertaken with 20 honors students at the Pennsylvania State University to teach Biomolecular Engineering in and ‘open web’ format.  Students would have access to the Internet for a significant part of the course, including during exams.  This teaching approach allowed in-course access to the burgeoning bioinformatics databases (GenBank, BRENDA, KEGG, &etc) while simultaneously emphasizing synthesis: complex problem solving that requires students to think critically about and apply fundamental principles from multiple chemical engineering disciplines (transport, thermodynamics, kinetics).  This course has subsequently evolved into a required junior-level course.  This presentation will discuss the challenges and potential advantages of this educational format, with emphasis on its applicability to larger class sizes (75+ students).  Strategies for managing the format’s unique technological (e.g. rapidly-evolving online resources) and administrative (e.g. academic integrity) challenges are considered.  The discussion will include the perspective of a former student and later teaching assistant of this course, who has since taught an analogous Biomolecular Engineering course as a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

BACKGROUND:  In the past 25 years, biological aspects of chemical engineering have become sufficiently ‘mainstream’ that many Departments have chosen to adopt some permutation of this field as part of their official departmental name.  Although Penn State did not adopt a name change, a curriculum track in biochemical engineering was implemented in the early 1990’s.  As a result, at the time of the presentation format experiment in 2004, our department had nearly a decade of experience in teaching a curriculum track that included biochemistry, bioprocess engineering, bioreactor design, bioseparations and numerous professional and technical electives.   This curriculum track accommodated around 25 students, but the electives often had enrollments of 50-75 students.  Although discussions of integrating bio into all other courses periodically resurfaces, we have retained this separate curriculum.  As we have increased the biological component of standard undergraduate curriculum to include additional biochemistry and molecular/cell biology, this resulted in flexibility in developing a course that is more advanced.  This has lead to the dilemma of a Junior level course that touches on the breadth of chemical engineering fundamentals in a biological context.  A case study format as discussed below was found to accommodate this situation, while also accommodating the lack of retention that some students experience from lower level courses - particularly biological content.   

CASE STUDY FORMAT:  The traditional format for Biochemical engineering follows ‘chapters’ of biochemistry, metabolism, enzyme and growth kinetics with typical divergence into various speciality areas of metabolic engineering, bioinformatics (and now synthetic & systems biology).   An alternative approach is to focus on a series of case studies in which the fundamentals are introduced ‘on demand’ in the context of the production of a product.  The case studies of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), Insulin, Erythropoietin (EPO), Beer & Biofuels currently provide for the coverage of the content.  This case study approach also provides for vertical themes (e,g, carbohydrates, organism production platforms, data-fitting and statistics) that advance with each additional case study.  Recognizing the power of the internet to provide unprecedented access to information, the real ‘experiment’ was to change the fundamental format of a course to teach a significant part of of the course where students are on computers - including quizzes and midterm exams.  Access to computers provides a decreased reliance on content details, and greater emphasis on concept.  This also provides for a much needed synthesis of principles that has plagued the reductionist approach to chemical engineering curriculum where we have dissected our fundamentals into separate courses - where real world processes include considerations of competing considerations of intrinsic kinetics, mass transfer, heat transfer etc.  

CONCLUSIONS & RECOMMENDATIONS:  A divergence from ‘chapters’ received very divergent reactions as a mode of instruction.  Some students thrive on the format, and others become extremely anxious about ‘what they need to know’.  It can be argued that this provides for an accommodation of a diversity of learning styles.  

Special attention must be given to the issue of academic integrity, as having access to the internet during an exam opens up nearly unlimited opportunity to try to gain an advantage;  very explicit rules on what can, and cannot be done … and extra precaution to be vigilant about maintaining confidence that being honest will not be a disadvantage.  The ability to use the internet as both an instructional tool as well as a component of the examination assessment process is a paradigm shift away from traditional teaching of Biochemical Engineering.  This places the emphasis on principles and thinking … which is more consistent with the nature of chemical engineering education.  This experience has potential to be implemented for the myriad of specialty topics of the Junior/Senior year curriculum experience where one can get quickly mired down in the ‘language’ and content details of a special topic, instead of refocusing on the important aspects of an iteration of ChE fundamentals in a new context.  A clear advantage of this approach to teaching is that it teaches students to ‘walk-the-talk’ of life-long learning.  The clear downside of this approach is the effort required to keep up with the rapid pace of changes of web-based information, and the need to create novel problems each semester.