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Engineering and Biology Students Learn to Speak Each Other's Language in Unique Course

In many ways, it was like learning to speak a different language.

Faculty in the College of Sciences and the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University conducted a bit of an experiment this past semester.

In the Bio-Nano/Micro Fluidics course, which just concluded, a class with half biology students and half engineering students worked together to bring engineering problem solving to a traditional task that biologists must do regularly.

The result was a fascinating, semester-long exchange of ideas from two groups that don't have a lot of practice working together.

"The purpose of the class is essentially to get engineers and biologists to be able talk to each other," said David Gauthier, assistant professor of biological sciences. "The approach we took was to come up with a standard biological problem, and then use engineering approaches to try to solve that problem."

The class was funded under the National Science Foundation's Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (NSF CCLI) Phase I program.

The students in the 400-level undergraduate course were tasked with doing DNA extraction and amplification using the technique of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Then they replicated the PCR process on a microchip.

One of the most fundamental techniques of molecular biology, PCR is used to detect pathogens and diseases like norovirus, and to analyze mutations in DNA.

Shizhi Qian, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Batten College, said this is the first interdisciplinary course of its nature to be offered between the two colleges.

"Many engineering students don't know what PCR is. They don't know about DNA. Engineers want to build devices for biological applications. But first they need to understand what DNA is, what PCR is and what the applications are used for," Qian said.

"The most important aspect of it is communication. Sometimes biologists talk about these problems with a totally different language. This helps them understand each other."

For Shannon Pfeiffer, a mechanical engineering graduate student from Virginia Beach, the experience was a real eye-opener.

"I learned so much in the biology section. I also learned a lot in the engineering section. It was a great way to do what engineers do - problem-solve - and do what we'd already done in the lab on the microchip," Pfeiffer said.

Xavier-Lewis Palmer, a junior biological sciences major from Hampton, said it was "an interesting ride" learning to communicate effectively with engineers and understand the problem from their perspective.

"It's actually made me want to take engineering classes. It will help me communicate better as well," Palmer said.

Gauthier said the actual experiment wasn't groundbreaking, but the rigor it required on both sides made the learning experience invaluable. "We're not trying to turn biologists into engineers and vice versa. We're trying to teach students who can talk across the disciplines."

Qian said this skill could prove indispensible for engineering graduates in the job market.

"After graduation, they may work for a pharmaceutical company and work with biologists, so this experience is worthwhile. If they don't have any background in biology, how can they communicate?" he said.

Another course with engineering and biology students will be offered in the spring semester at ODU.

Called Bio-Microelectromechanical Systems (Bio-MEMS), it is funded by the same NSF CCLI grant, and will be similar in approach, but will cover a different topic (bacterial biofilms and MEMS devices).

This article was posted on: December 15, 2010

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