Inspired by Real Science: Biomedical Engineering for Breast Cancer Research in the Classroom

By Rowlinson, Sarah; Burg, Karen | Science Scope, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Inspired by Real Science: Biomedical Engineering for Breast Cancer Research in the Classroom


Rowlinson, Sarah, Burg, Karen, Science Scope


Biomedical engineering is an exciting, blossoming field that combines the design and problemsolving skills of engineering with the medical and biological sciences to advance healthcare treatment, including diagnosis, monitoring, and therapy. Much biomedical engineering work consists of research and development, which span a broad array of subfields, such as tissue engineering, genetic engineering, neuroengineering, pharmaceutical engineering, medical devices, medical imaging, and biomaterials. Biomedical engineers work in a variety of settings, including academic and industry laboratories, surgical suites, and patient-care rooms.

One of the goals of tissue engineering is to use normal cells, taken from a patient needing an organ or tissue transplant, to grow replacement tissues and organs. Tissue engineering also aims to create cell-based systems in the lab to better understand the development of tissues and organs and the function of the cells present. These systems can then be used to test new drugs and to support scientific inquiry into disease initiation and progression. Important to designing the system is dimensionality--cells behave differently when growing in three dimensions (3-D) (e.g., in the human body) versus in two dimensions (2-D) (e.g., in a petri dish). Dimensionality of these cell-based systems is a common subject of tissue engineering research (Zhu and Nelson 2013).

The engineering-design process is the formulation of a plan to help an engineer build a product with a specified performance goal. This process involves a number of steps, and parts of the process may need to be repeated many times before the production of a final product can begin. The scientific investigation process involves systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation, as well as the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. Biomedical engineering is unique because it uses both engineering design and scientific investigation techniques to create a biomedical product or add new knowledge to the biomedical field. Realizing that biomedical engineering is a hybrid of these two perspectives is key to students' understanding of the module described in this article.

This teaching module is inspired by current research being conducted by the authors: breast tissue engineering for breast cancer-research applications (Yang and Burg 2013; Booth, Park, and Burg 2013; NSF 2014). This subfield of tissue engineering aims to fabricate systems to better understand breast cancer. The introduction of biomedical engineering through implementation of this breast tissue engineering activity demonstrates to students the practices of engineering design presented in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The module distills biomedical engineering concepts, with a focus on breast tissue engineering, into a one-hour session with a hands-on activity involving simulated tissue fabrication.

The module allows students to experience the process of designing a tissue-engineered system--designing, critiquing, redesigning--and to determine necessary features for a successful system. This iterative cycle of development requires students to synthesize a host of information and tackle an open-ended problem.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Prior to being exposed to this module, students should have a foundation in NGSS LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes (see standards sidebar on p. 58). Teachers can easily tailor this module for their individual classrooms and it it into their curricula as they see best. Curriculum implementation is also discussed in Creating a Positive Environment for the Activity, below. This module is appropriate for students in grades 5-12.

Understanding breast tissue physiology and breast cancer

The primary function of the breasts as mammary glands is the feeding and nourishing of an infant with milk during the maternal lactation period. …

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