Letting students participate in science competitions has always been a good way to promote learning. And some institutes have taken the contemporary notion of competition to the next level by bringing in initiatives such as the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition.
This year, the version had a lot of projects related to synthetic biology; the concept at this level is to design, build and test genetically engineered organisms.
A lot of these have a direct link to biomedical engineering. For instance, one project focused on engineering gene circuits in a model organism of yeast to gain a better understanding of how cells make their decisions. These circuits may very well be used in future bio-manufacturing.
Projects such as these fall in the category of integrative science, and students can be reared for such learning through online education. Not only are there a massive number of tools, hands-on tutorials can serve as good guiding template for the student.
Impact of online learning
There are other nascent competitions, such as iGEM, that are honing a new generation of scientific minds and helping to progress the field of synthetic biology and biomedical engineering simultaneously.
This ‘hands-on’ experimentation and its learning curve is largely attributed to online school since it is free of barriers and ‘ethical’ considerations.
The field of biomedical engineering is under the category of integrative science, and online tools are ideal for an industry that is expected to be worth $16.7 billion by 2018.
The point is that ‘hands-on’ information leads to creative learning and a multifaceted approach that routine education may be unable to provide.
This ‘information cycle’ also leads to a more well rounded experience, as the online education model is based on using tools that generate out-of-the-box learning. Even students who don’t have a science background can benefit from such an approach, since high level learning is made more accessible and dynamic.
Furthermore, with the diversity of courses, integrative learning is made a whole lot easier without time constraints.
A paper published in Nature this year indicates that more than 30% of the online school courses offered are in the discipline of science, which is the most of any discipline. Furthermore, a lot of students prefer to study cross disciplinary courses that merge science with other fields, such as information technology or business.
A remarkable learning project that uses online tools and education is that of Foldit. Foldit is a project being run by multiple institutes and involves solving protein structures, which is important in the field of biomedical engineering and related fields. The underlying premise is that if the structure is unraveled, the function can be manipulated.
There is a special provision in this project for educators and students. The prior learning level needed for solving the protein puzzle is an ideal example of online education’s removal of barriers. Students can be assigned these activities to improve their understanding of living systems early in their careers.
Another concept within biomedical engineering is that of studying ligand-protein associations. By understanding which parts of the proteins can be activated by which ligands, several models can be generated. This is important from a research perspective. An online tool established for determining such interactions is the iTasser, which uses an algorithmic approach. This is yet another example of cost effective learning and research.
Educational institutes are also generating data consortiums in the form of databases. This allows new and interested students to study prior data and use it to build models. This allows groundwork training without requiring expert personnel.
An example of this is the ModBase, which is a database of comparative protein structure models. Before making any rudimentary biomedical engineering project, the student would need data about the protein structure. It is easily accessible from this site. The benefit of such tools is that since the database is updated on a routine basis, efficient models can be built quickly.
Educational paradigms should evolve in order to train the next generation of scientists and engineers. They should be able to cultivate creativity and develop social consciousness simultaneously. Online education is a great tool for providing such an approach for the students of tomorrow.