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Transcending the traditional: innovation in education

Technology is changing every minute. William Ditto, director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering (SBHSE), wants to see engineering curriculum keep pace.

His school has taken a radical approach in an effort toward more efficient, effective and engaging ways to deliver results.

“We have developed a skills-based modular curriculum which is unique to ASU,” Ditto says. “Rather than taking years to implement changes, we can modify or even start a new major over a weekend.”

“This keeps us on the leading edge with a highly efficient way of presenting and changing materials,” he says.

He cites changes in the teaching environment as a catalyst for the initiative. “Fifty years ago, there was far greater teaching capacity. Today, all faculty write grant proposals and perform cutting edge research in addition to teaching classes. That doesn’t mean that we devote less time to teaching. It means that we need to be more efficient.”

The redesign was completed in six months. Every existing course was eliminated, then rebuilt based on skill sets. Each of the new courses will be five weeks and one credit. The curriculum will be rolled out in fall 2011, subject to final approvals.

SBHSE students have exposure to hands-on engineering experience from day one. At many universities, students are not involved in product design until later years. At SBHSE, everything still culminates in capstone design senior year but freshmen are paired with senior design teams the very first semester. For example, teams in biomedical engineering are constructing and building prototypes of 3-D printers.

SBHSE is also implementing fundamental entrepreneurship. Every student and a majority of the faculty are involved in the full spectrum, from invention disclosures to building a business.

Students in SBHSE’s programs receive both core engineering expertise and very specific skills.

“We want our graduates to present future employers with not just a degree on a piece of paper, but a list of skills they have mastered—the ability to manipulate cells, signal processing in the brain, construction of artificial tissue,” Ditto says. “We believe this will give our students a significant advantage in whatever path they choose to take.”


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