An End to Enrollment Caps

Ever since the biomedical engineering department introduced the undergraduate major in 2003, enrollment in the program has risen steadily. As Will Guilford, then the department’s undergraduate program director and now the engineering school's Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, notes, applications in recent years ranged from 114 to 148 students a year at a time when UVA Engineering as a whole was admitting between 600 and 625 students.

To balance demand with available resources, the Dean’s Office allowed the engineering departments to limit enrollment. This year, the Engineering School removed all caps.  For the 2017-18 school year, the department will have approximately 115 majors. The Class of 2021 will be more racially and ethnically diverse than any class before it and be majority female.

"It didn't serve our students."

The impetus for removing the caps came from John Gates, the Engineering School’s associate dean for diversity and inclusion. Gates showed how the caps disproportionately partitioned underrepresented minorities into second and third choice majors.

"The cap was there because of constraints on our resources," says Guilford, "but we were happy to see it go because it didn’t serve students. With the removal of the cap, we saw an opportunity to review the curriculum in the same light."

"The cap was there because of constraints on our resources, but we were happy to see it go because it didn’t serve students. With the removal of the cap, we saw an opportunity to review the curriculum in the same light."

William Guilford, BME Undergraduate Program Director

More modeling, more flexibility

After a series of faculty meetings, the department made two more significant changes. The first was simply to push the second semester of physiology to the third year. This change provides more opportunity to integrate the modeling and computation skills students learn as second-year students into the third-year physiology class.

The second change cuts class sizes in half.  Starting in the 2017-18 school year, the department will split all core classes.  Guilford is quick to point out that the addition of new faculty members over the past few years set the stage for this change: “We found ourselves serendipitously with the number of faculty members that allows us to make this change at the moment we wanted to do it,” he said.

Contemplating concentrations

Further changes may be in the offing. During the department’s recent accreditation process, the department surveyed alumni about the program. One suggestion from graduates was that the department offer tracks or concentrations within the major, an idea that was seconded by the department’s advisory board. “We are just starting to think about what those tracks might be,” Guilford says. “We see it as an opportunity for students to gain depth in a field that excites them and to help them develop marketable skills.”

Reflecting on Capstone and Enrollment Caps

"If you put a cap on a subject that a student wants to study, you are effectively putting a cap on their life as well as their school experience"

Yonathan Michael (Nanomedicine Engineering '17)

For their Capstone project, fourth years Morgan Lataillade (BME '17), Kara Mason (BME '17) and Yonathan Michael (Nanomedicine '17) are making the most of an opportunity available to very few undergraduates anywhere: they are creating a “bioink” composed of cells and biomaterials that can be used in a state-of-the-art bioprinter. “We need to select something that can support the cells, hold its shape and is porous enough so that vasculature can develop in the new tissue,” Lataillade says.

Although they are working under the guidance of Professor Shayn Peirce-Cottler, they are independent in the execution of their research. Setting their goals and schedules and creating experiments is their responsibility. “We’ve learned a lot through this process besides the engineering,” Mason says. “We’ve found, for instance, that it’s easy to be overly ambitious. Dr. Peirce-Cottler served as a reality check. She gave us an idea of what we could realistically expect to accomplish in the time we had.”

Michael has taken a related insight from the experience. “You can’t count on things working out the first time,” he says. “You have to think things through and be ready to move quickly to find a different plan.”

Taken as a whole, the three students really value their Capstone experience — which is one reason that they are so adamant about the Engineering School removing caps on majors. In addition, as African-American students, they have been part of a community that has felt the brunt of these restrictions.

“If you put a cap on a subject that a student wants to study, you are effectively putting a cap on their life as well as their school experience,” Michael says. “The Engineering School will also benefit now that the cap is removed,” Mason adds, “because it will be able to retain more students.”

"I know that if I had not been able to major in biomedical engineering, I may have left the engineering school—and I would have missed a lot."

Debbie Druckerman (BME '17)

Debbie Druckerman (BME ’17) has definite opinions about the wisdom of removing the cap. “I think eliminating the cap was great,” she says. “I know that if I had not been able to major in biomedical engineering, I may have left the engineering school—and I would have missed a lot.”

In particular, Druckerman loved her physiology classes and feels that the IDEAS Lab prepared her with a wide variety of marketable lab bench and wet lab skills. “Being able to perform PCR, for instance puts you ahead of the crowd,” she says. “Dr. Allen does such a fantastic job.”

One of the highlights of the BME degree program for Druckerman has been the opportunity to conduct research with leaders in the field. Working with Professors John Hossack and Mark Okusa, the chief of nephrology at the UVA Health System, she is helping identify a pathway that seems to inhibit the inflammatory response in the kidney, which could be useful in minimizing the damage caused by kidney reperfusion after a heart attack, stroke, or trauma. “The work is ongoing,” she says, “but just being part of the team working on this problem has been rewarding.”