ES 227 Spotlights Medical Technology

New course unites engineering students and doctors

By pairing engineering students with doctors at Harvard-affiliated hospitals, a new course titled Engineering Sciences 227: Medical Device Design bridges the divide between engineering and medicine.

The class, which was offered for the first time last spring, is the brainchild of SEAS Lecturer Conor J. Walsh, who said he was inspired by a similar class taught by his MIT graduate advisor.

When he arrived at Harvard last year, Walsh noticed a need for hands-on, project-based learning at SEAS.

He said the goal of his course is to bring together students of engineering and doctors to solve practical medical problems together. This past term, Walsh’s 15 students split into different groups to tackle four difficult medical problems proposed by practicing doctors. He said one of the exciting aspects of the class is that the project ideas are generated by doctors, but the students themselves pick which projects to work on.

“We bring in a number of different doctors, but it’s really the students who decide what they want to work on,” said Walsh.

According to Samuel B. Kesner, a graduate student in engineering and the teaching fellow for ES 227, the course focused on the interdisciplinary nature of medical device design from the beginning. In addition to Walsh’s lessons, the course consisted of guest lectures by members of the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Law School. Teammates also met regularly to work on their individual projects, and while there was no homework per se, the teams were required to submit assignments related to their projects on a weekly basis.

The hands-on nature of the class differs sharply from most of Harvard’s course offerings, Kesner said. While Harvard is very strong in the theoretical sciences and growing stronger in the applied sciences, Kesner said that there are relatively few graduate engineering classes that offer the type of interdisciplinary, interactive, project-based work that ES 227 champions.

“Students get the most out of it by really getting immersed in the material, and there’s no better way than actually working on a project,” Kesner said.

Both Walsh and Kesner were pleased by the outcome of the course’s first semester, and hope to offer it again as long as they can secure funding. Walsh envisions the course slowly becoming even more interdisciplinary, bringing on students from the HBS and HLS to join the project teams in the hopes of successfully taking products from the design stage to production stage.

“Everyone involved had a great time—the doctors were pleased and the students enthusiastic and excited,” said Kesner. “We’d love to offer it again.”

—Staff writer Nitish Lakhanpal can be reached at nitishlakhanpal@college.harvard.edu.

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