Designed from the ground up as a teaching facility, the new spot in Thornton Hall can also accommodate the department’s current enrollment and more

The Integrative Design and Experimental Analysis (IDEAS) Laboratory represents a pivotal moment in the education of our BME majors. It is the point at which learners become doers. After taking the two-semester IDEAS Lab, BME students have many of the skills they need to apply concepts gained in first- and second-year courses to their fourth-year capstone design project. As the lab’s director, Associate Professor Timothy Allen, says, “Students are not necessarily going to become experts in the dozen or so experimental and data analysis techniques that we cover in IDEAS, but they’ll know the fundamentals.”

But as Allen also points out, the purpose of the lab is not simply to teach students skills but also help them integrate knowledge. “Students naturally tend to take knowledge from individual courses and store what they’ve learned in separate mental bins,” he says. “One goal of the lab is to help them break down these barriers.”

This fall, the IDEAS Lab moved to a new facility in Thornton Hall. It is designed from the ground up as a teaching facility and is large enough to accommodate the department’s current enrollment, which has grown substantially since the lab was introduced. The lab’s last location was in a basement research lab in Wilsdorf Hall, with the benches and cabinets arranged around the perimeter. The result: students faced the wall rather than the instructor. With eight lab stations squeezed in, workflow was chaotic. “People were always bumping into each other,” Allen notes.

In addition, there was no room for some of the instrumentation needed for the Nanomedicine Engineering Lab, which shares the IDEAS Lab facility. “Our scanning electron microscope, atomic force microscopes, and other equipment was housed in a series of research labs in MR5,” says Associate Professor Brian Helmke, who co-teaches the course with Associate Professor Mike Lawrence. “This made it really hard to use them to their best advantage.”

In the new Thornton Hall IDEAS Lab, lab stations are clustered in the center of the room, facilitating instruction. It feels more spacious because there is a separate prep room and a cell culture room as well as an instrumentation room dedicated specifically to the Nanomedicine program, which has allowed it to retrieve its equipment from MR5. The lab is also compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirement, and, as an added plus, has three large windows overlooking Darden Court. “It’s got great light,” Allen says.

For Garrett Beeghly (BME ’17), the differences between the two facilities are dramatic. Beeghly took the IDEAS Lab sequence at Wilsdorf. This summer, he was a teaching assistant at the first IDEAS Lab held in Thornton. “Because Wilsdorf was so cramped, students often had to jockey for position to see what their teammates were doing,” he says. “At Thornton, the space is larger and more open. And since it’s compartmentalized, an instructor can be explaining a technique to a team in the cell culture room without competing with the rest of the activity going on in the lab.” Like Allen, Beeghly is a fan of the windows.

“The lab is four hours long, so having a sense of what is going on outside is really nice,” he says.

“The IDEAS Lab marks a critical stage in our students’ educational development,” says Associate Professor Will Guilford, the department’s undergraduate program director. “That’s why the opening of the new IDEAS Lab facility in Thornton is so important.”