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2013 June 1

New freshman design seminar

This week I filed paperwork for yet another new course for bioengineering majors: a freshman design seminar.  The course idea was started by the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), a student club at UCSC.  They were seeing a lack of engineering in the first couple of years of the bioengineering major.  The first two years at UCSC usually have 12 technical courses and 6 general-education courses, but the bioengineering major has 16 required lower-division courses, mostly science and math.  That means that most students don’t get any engineering design courses in their first two years.

The BMES officers brought the idea of a lower-division project first to the dean of the School of Engineering, who encouraged them to get it created as a permanent course in the department.  They then brought the idea to David Bernick and me, and we brainstormed how to convert the project idea into a workable course that has no prerequisites.  We decided to go with a 2-unit course (about 60 hours total work) rather than a standard 5-unit course (about 150 hours) or a 7-unit lecture plus lab (about 210 hours), because bioengineering students can’t really afford to delay any of their technical coursework, so the design seminar has to be handled as overload.

We decided on winter quarter to offer the seminar.  Fall quarter was rejected, since students will need to be advised to take it and summer advising sessions do not really provide much opportunity for peer advising by fellow engineering students. Spring quarter was rejected, because I’ll have the circuits course (with 12 hours a week in lab, plus 3.5 hours a week in lecture, plus grading), so won’t have the time to do the freshman seminar as well.  David could probably do it in Spring, but it would be best if there were more than one possible instructor available.  It’s not clear who would teach the course the first year—I would have to take it on as overload if I did it, and money would have to be found to hire David to do it, as the course wasn’t even thought of when the curriculum leave plan was written for the next fiscal year.

The class is limited to freshmen and sophomore bioengineering majors (or premajors), but upper-division bioengineers will be encouraged to volunteer as mentors (and some may be paid as group tutors).

Here is the catalog copy I submitted (limited to 40 words):

A first course in engineering design for bioengineers. In co-operation with the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES).  Students choose a design project and work on it in competitive and cooperative teams. Covers team building, design, prototyping, and report writing.

And here is the more detailed “supplemental sheet” that has the actual course description:

Undergraduate Supplemental Sheet

Information to accompany Request for Course Approval

Sponsoring Agency: Biomolecular Engineering
Course #: 88A
Catalog Title: BMES freshman design seminar
Please answer all of the following questions using a separate sheet for your response.

1. Are you proposing a revision to an existing course? If so give the name, number, and GE designations (if applicable) currently held.
This is not a revision to any existing course.

2. In concrete, substantive terms explain how the course will proceed. List the major topics to be covered, preferably by week.
This course is a project course for freshmen, done in conjunction with the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), a student organization on campus.

  1. The class will choose a project for the quarter, with advice from BMES and the instructor.  Lab and fabrication facilities will be toured.
  2. Instructor and reference librarians will introduce students to finding detailed information in the library and on the web relevant to the course (finding data sheets for parts, finding tutorials on relevant theory, searching for survey articles and application notes, using EndNote or BibTeX to maintain a bibliography, …).  Students will choose topics relevant to the project to research.
  3. Students will present the results of background research and brainstorm approaches to the design problem.  Students will be assigned the task of finding and reading data sheets for components they might need.  Students will write a clear set of design goals for the project.
  4. Teams will be formed to prototype different approaches. Dynamics of team formation and functioning will be discussed.  Procedures will be determined for abandoning unpromising approaches, merging teams, and starting new ones.
  5. Weeks 5–8 will involve prototyping projects, with instruction in prototyping technologies and tools (laser cutter, soldering, drill press, glass bending, … ) as needed.  Written drafts of design reports will be required every 2 weeks—these are cumulative reports, not just what has been done since last time.
  6. Weeks 9 and 10 will involve testing and comparison of the different design approaches and a collaborative final design report from the entire class that includes an analysis of all the different designs—their strengths and their weaknesses.  The final design report will be given as a public oral presentation, as well as in a written report.

3. Systemwide Senate Regulation 760 specifies that 1 academic credit corresponds to 3 hours of work per week for the student in a 10-week quarter. Please briefly explain how the course will lead to sufficient work with reference to e.g., lectures, sections, amount of homework, field trips, etc. [Please note that if significant changes are proposed to the format of the course after its initial approval, you will need to submit new course approval paperwork to answer this question in light of the new course format.]
Students will spend 3.5 hours a week in lab/lecture and about 3–6 hours a week in reading, writing, and group design meetings, depending on level of commitment to the course, making this course 2–3 units of effort.

4. Include a complete reading list or its equivalent in other media.
The students will be reading primarily about the background and components for the particular project they are doing, which will most likely be different each year.  For example, if students do a project on building a device to continuously monitor optical density in a liquid culture, they will be reading about the theory of optical density measurements, how liquid cultures are grown, light sources (LEDs, laser diodes, and incandescent lights), photo detectors (photodiodes, phototransistors, and photoresistors), and whatever other knowledge they need to design and build their prototypes.  Most of this reading will be from the internet and books or journal articles from the library.
Discussions on team formation may be based on a book like Teamwork and Project Management, 3rd edition by Karl A. Smith and P.K. Imbrie, but a shorter, more readable presentation is probably needed.  Short articles like (“Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing”) or‎ (“Successful Strategies for Teams”) may be more appropriate.

5. State the basis on which evaluation of individual students’ achievements in this course will be made by the instructor (e.g., class participation, examinations, papers, projects).
Students will be evaluated primarily on design reports and participation in project design.

6. List other UCSC courses covering similar material, if known.
This course is similar to capstone design courses and senior theses, but on a much smaller scale.  It is intended to be a first introduction to engineering design for bioengineering majors.

7. List expected resource requirements including course support and specialized facilities or equipment for divisional review. (This information must also be reported to the scheduling office each quarter the course is offered.)
Students will need access to a lab where they can use both electronic equipment and standard molecular biology equipment.  Baskin 287 has all the molecular biology equipment, but lacks a multimeter, bench power supply, oscilloscope, function generator, and soldering station.  Several of the electronics labs have the electronics equipment, but lack water, sinks, and biomolecular lab equipment.  A Bunsen burner for shaping glass tubes would be useful for some projects.
Students may also need access to the laser cutter and other fabrication tools in Baskin Engineering 138.

8. If applicable, justify any pre-requisites or enrollment restrictions proposed for this course. For pre-requisites sponsored by other departments/programs, please provide evidence of consultation.
There are no prerequisites for the course, as it is intended as a freshman seminar.  Enrollment is limited to bioengineering majors and pre-majors who are freshman or sophomores, to keep the freshmen from being overwhelmed by upper-division students.  A small number of upper-division students are expected to participate as group tutors.

9. Proposals for new or revised Disciplinary Communication courses will be considered within the context of the approved DC plan for the relevant major(s). If applicable, please complete and submit the new proposal form ( or or the revisions to approved plans form ( or
This course is not expected to contribute to any major’s disciplinary communication requirement, though it will include feedback on writing design reports so that students are better prepared for writing in upper-division technical courses.

10. If you are requesting a GE designation for the proposed course, please justify your request making reference to the attached guidelines.
This course is a group design effort, in which students agree on an overall design project, split into teams to prototype different approaches to the design, and work cooperatively both within the teams and in the class as a whole.  The course matches the Practice: Collaborative Endeavor (PR-E code): “Students learn and practice strategies and techniques for working effectively in pairs or larger groups to produce a finished product. For example, students might learn specialized practical information such as how to use change-management software to monitor and manage changes initiated by multiple group members. Alternatively, they might learn basic information about leadership, teamwork, and group functioning, which they can incorporate into their own group process. What is common to all courses is that some instruction regarding the process of collaboration is provided, in addition to instruction specific to the academic discipline and the products being produced.”

11. If this is a new course and you requesting a new GE, do you think an old GE designation(s) is also appropriate? (CEP would like to maintain as many old GE offerings as is possible for the time being.)
As this is a 2-unit course, the old GE designations, which were reserved for 5-unit courses, are not applicable.

Yesterday (Friday), BMES met with me to discuss whether the course description met their goals and how to get sufficient enrollment in the course. (I’d had to file the paperwork in a hurry, hoping to catch the last Committee on Educational Policy meeting of the year—we may still have missed it, in which case the course won’t be approved until the fall.)  The students who read the course description seemed to think that the course was what they were looking for.  I’m a bit worried about whether it can be kept to the workload of a 2-unit course.

We also talked a bit about possible projects for the first offering.  Two have been discussed so far:

  • A low-cost optical density meter for continuous monitoring of OD 600 (with an LED light source) or OD 650 (with a narrower-spectrum laser-diode light source) of cultures on a shaker table.
  • A pulse oximeter for measuring blood oxygenation.

Both of these projects have minimal analog electronics (basically just an LED or two and a phototransistor, with associated resistors).  The challenging parts are the mechanical design for the density meter (how do the sensor and shaker flask interact?  submersible sensor? culture pumped through a tube? waterproofing? autoclavable?) and the programming for the pulse oximeter (I think that most of the usual analog electronics can and should be replaced by programming, but is the Arduino powerful enough?  do we need a Raspberry Pi instead?).

We’ll be encouraging the members of BMES to come up with other project ideas, so that there can be a different project every year.  Another possibility that was mentioned is to build a thermal cycler for PCR, like the OpenPCR project, but the design work there has already been done, and the parts are more expensive.

The two projects we’ve been thinking of so far use only a few dollars worth of parts and a re-usable $22 Arduino board, so I don’t see any problem in just having students buy the components themselves.  It would be good for them to learn how to find and order parts from companies like DigiKey (though they are an expensive source for 650nm laser diodes: $9 vs. 5 for $10 at other suppliers).

Unless we get some corporate sponsorship, we’ll have to run this design seminar on a shoestring, as the School of Engineering relies on student lab fees for consumable parts, and those fees have to be approved about a year in advance. Anyone know a company interested in making a small donation to support such a freshman design seminar?  (It is not worth my time to go looking for a sponsor, but I’d be glad to put anyone who wants to make a donation in touch with the University Development people working with the School of Engineering.)


  1. […] in future years).  That is one reason I helped the Biomedical Engineering Society create a freshman design seminar for next year, so students in their first year would not get lost in the 200–400-student […]

    Pingback by Teaching by hand | Gas station without pumps — 2013 June 1 @ 18:37 | Reply

  2. […] year, I am hoping to lead a 2-unit freshman design seminar for bioengineering students.  (Note: I did not say “teach” here, as I’m envisioning more of a mentoring role […]

    Pingback by Optical pulse monitor with little electronics | Gas station without pumps — 2013 July 24 @ 10:42 | Reply

  3. […] Winter I’ll be trying to run a new freshman design seminar for bioengineering majors.  This is intended to be a 2-unit course (that is, about 60 hours total work) and to have a lot of […]

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