GW Nashman Center Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Lee

The Nashman Center is committed to highlighting the faculty that give back to the community and GW students through service-learning projects. Aleena Khan spoke to Dr. Lee of SEAS about his ongoing work with students in his capstone engineering course and their work. Yuval Lev also spoke to several students in his capstone course working on a project building wheelchairs for people in Belize.

The Nashman Faculty Update will continue shining a spotlight on community-engaged faculty and students, so watch this space for more to come. If you want to get more involved with community-engaged scholarship,  follow us on Twitter @NashmanFaculty and save the date for The Nashman Center symposium on Friday, December 8th, where all students are welcome to present their community-engaged scholarship!


Nashman Center: Could you start by giving me an overview of your service-learning course?

Dr. Lee: The one that’s the most relevant is the capstone design, the senior-level design course that every engineer has to take some version of. With ours, in biomedical engineering, it’s pretty easy to incorporate some kind of community engagement aspect. So, we have 11 teams of four or five students working on 11 different projects this year. One is monitoring respiration and other clinical information in patients who are ventilated, the idea being to improve the way that ventilation is managed.

"We're basically trying to build a cheap, off-roading wheelchair for people in Belize. There's one specific lab we're working with."

Nashman Center: That’s really cool! Is it something that they work on for all four years/whenever they declare their major or do they begin these projects their senior year?

Dr. Lee: Right now, it’s starting senior year. The goal is to have some design experience through all four years – at least through the last three – and possibly having some longer-term projects, or projects that are on the larger size, involve students from throughout the curriculum. We’re a new department, so this is a new way of doing senior design. It’s a long-term aspiration.

Nashman Center: Is this the first year that you’re doing more of a community engagement project?

Dr. Lee: This is my third year here and last year, we started by getting projects from clinicians and researchers. We’ve got three projects for two physical therapists, we have three different projects from clinicians at the GW Hospital, one from the FDA, one from a researcher, and one from a company in Columbus, OH.  

Nashman Center: That’s amazing. How do you think this kind of course, going out into the community, getting projects from clinicians, the physical therapists, challenges the students in a way a traditional course would not?

Dr. Lee: In a traditional course, in engineering, students will often be presented with problems that have a solution. The capstone projects are much more open-ended, much more real-world. We know that nobody’s made one of these before, so if you ask me how to make it, I’m going to tell you, “I don’t know.”

The Team

"They get a lot of wheelchairs that are normal in Belize...They rust... We don't just want to create a wheelchair, we want to create a manual for repairs."

Nashman Center: What’s your favorite student story from the course? Favorite story, favorite project?

Dr. Lee: From GW, last year was the first year they came out of the clinics and they weren’t just student projects. One of the teams ended up making a device that was good enough that hospital engineering approved it for use in the hospital to collect data that physicians could use – and again, this is related to ventilation – so this year, the project is related to that, but it’s not so much an improvement of the device but more so of what the next step is. That team got second prize in the Pelton Award Contest in the School of Engineering.

Nashman Center: Do you have any recommendations on how we would provide an indicator for the impact of your course?

Dr. Lee: That’s something that Dr. Wentzel and I are working on this year, is trying to figure out how to assess what’s working and use that to figure out what modifications for what we’re doing and make the program sustainable.

Nashman Center: Are you guys the creators of this program? Or was the idea already there and you guys helped develop it?

Dr. Lee: A mix. So, I came from Ohio State and at Ohio State, there was a Capstone Design Project class. So, some of the things I’m trying to do here worked there; working with Dr. Wentzell is part of the idea of getting more direct input from the clinicians and more interaction between the students and the clinicians. This summer, she came into a class of high school students where I’d had them work on a mock-up product of an active ankle prosthetic and she gave them feedback on their designs. That worked well enough that we adopted it for our senior portion as a little mini project to get them started and in the mentality that they’re going to have to try something out, not give them the idea that every little thing will stay in place. She’s going to come in with some physical therapy students next week, and the students will present their ideas to physical therapists and get feedback on what does and doesn’t work, as well as what’s missing.

Nashman Center: That’s an invaluable experience.

Dr. Lee: I think so!

Nashman Center: What would you say to a student who is unsure about taking a service-learning course?

Dr. Lee: What I’d say to the students just in general is that you’re here to explore and learn and find out about the world. Service Learning is something that’s going to help you get outside of your comfort zone and learning about something that you’ll never see otherwise. So, go do it!