Brian Helmke's Nomination Cited Effectiveness, Forward-Thinking and Enduring Impact

Brian Helmke, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has earned UVA Engineering's Harold S. Morton Jr. Undergraduate Teaching Prize. The Morton Prize is given to instructors who demonstrate skill and effectiveness in teaching 1000- and 2000-level courses.

The same qualities that earned him the Morton Prize also earned him his colleagues' gratitude as instruction went online this spring.

Brian Helmke, award winning professor of BME

BRIAN HELMKE, PH.D. is an associate professor in the department of biomedical engineering and director of undergraduate research for UVA Engineering. He investigates the relationship between cell mechanics and cell function using new tools in materials science and molecular biology, with a focus on cardiovascular disease. 

Helmke’s approach to teaching Physiology I, a core course in the second year of the biomedical engineering major, formed the basis of the Morton Prize nomination. Physiology is often taught through traditional lecture and rote memorization. Helmke, however, promotes an active learning approach, sometimes referred to as flipping the classroom.

In Helmke’s section of Physiology I, lecture content is pre-recorded and consumed offline, while classroom time is used for online group discussions, problems sets and concept checks. Helmke use students’ responses in real time to correct misunderstandings, stimulate problem-solving and reinforce key concepts. “This approach to teaching is not only forward-thinking, but very uncommon in the teaching of quantitative physiology. In fact, in unskilled hands it can be a disaster,” said William Guilford, assistant dean for undergraduate education and associate professor of biomedical engineering, in his nomination letter.

“Fortunately, Brian is a master teacher. He creates a vibrant learning environment in which students come to learn the why of things, rather than just the what. The approach is time consuming to say the least, in class and out, and requires exhaustive preparation and an unusual degree of personal dedication to the students, but Brian always and ever puts students first,” he continued.

As a faculty facilitator in the Course Design Institute in the UVA Center for Teaching Excellence, Helmke has helped colleagues flip their own classrooms and embrace the technology that enables active learning. This turned out to be effective preparation for March 11, the day the University of Virginia decided to move courses online to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

In a recent letter to alumni and friends about the department’s response to the pandemic, Fred Epstein, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, described the way faculty members took the undergraduate program online as a high point. “We were fortunate in that one of our faculty members, Associate Professor Brian Helmke, has long been interested in innovations in teaching. In just four days after we decided to make the switch, Brian delivered a series of tutorials that helped bring everyone else in the department up to speed—and six days later we went live,” he said.

Dr. Helmke's scholarship on active learning approaches:

Helmke BP. 2019. Specifications grading in an upper-level BME elective course. ASEE Annual Conference, June 15-19, Tampa, FL. Paper ID #26968

Helmke BP. 2018. Student choice of traditional or blended learning activities improves satisfaction and learning outcome. ASEE Annual Conference, June 24-27, Salt Lake City, UT. Paper ID #22763

Helmke BP, Guilford WH. 2018. Learner satisfaction and quality of student-faculty interactions in traditional vs. blended classrooms. ASEE Annual Conference, June 24-27, Salt Lake City, UT. Paper ID #22751

Guilford WH, Helmke BP. 2017. Summative versus formative assessments in teaching physiology to biomedical engineering students: a comparison of outcomes. ASEE Annual Conference, June 25-28, Columbus, OH. Paper ID #18219

Helmke BP. 2017. Barriers to learning in a large flipped biotransport course. ASEE Annual Conference, June 25-28, Columbus, OH. Paper ID #18299