VaNTH Materials


The VaNTH ERC for Bioengineering Educational Technologies was an NSF-supported Engineering Research Center comprised of Vanderbilt, Northwestern, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Health Sciences Technology (HST) program of Harvard and MIT. It was active from the years 1999-2008. Its mission was to apply the results of learning science research to the burgeoning field of biomedical engineering (BME) at the undergraduate level. ERCs are among the largest structures supported by NSF, and the VaNTH ERC remains the only one ever dedicated to education.  

NCEER grew out of the research community initiated by VaNTH at Northwestern. Below is an overview of the pedagogical theory that guided much VaNTH research, a link to the large number of ready-to-use courseware modules developed by VaNTH, and the results of the extensive BME curriculum research that VaNTH conducted.

The How People Learn (HPL) Framework and Challenge Based Instruction

The HPL framework provided the intellectual foundation for VaNTH's mission. The National Academy Press book, How People Learn, took learning from speculation to science. It reviewed successful pedagogical strategies, tested largely in the K-12 domain, and distilled them into a framework that captured essential features of a learner-centered environment. A key feature of the framework is that it is designed to combat the common problem of students’ inability to apply learning to relevant situations. Research in VaNTH showed this framework to be valuable for engineering education as well. In a learner-centered model, the emphasis is placed on learning rather than on teaching.

Five criteria for HPL driven design

  1. Students develop own ideas for solving a complex problem
  2. Explicit outcomes to enhance student self-assessment
  3. Students work in groups—social mediation of knowledge & solutions
  4. Students test own solutions through hands-on activities and computer simulations
  5. Instructors provide well-defined structure for learning opportunities

Overlapping lenses

How People Learn CentersThe framework provides these four overlapping “lenses” to use when creating and developing learning environments:

  1. Learner-centered: environments focus on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students bring to the learning situation
  2. Knowledge-centered: environments focus on content that is organized around big ideas or core concepts
  3. Assessment-centered: environments help students’ thinking to become more visible so that both they and their teachers may assess and revise their understanding
  4. Community-centered: environments capitalize on local expertise to create a sense of collaboration among students

Challenge Based Instruction

Challenge Based Instruction is one model that provides various opportunities to balance the dimensions of the HPL framework. Challenges provide students with the conditions for when and how to apply specific knowledge.

Challenges should:

  • Be accessible to students (in the sense that they can generate ideas)
  • Be motivating to students (by tapping into their interests)
  • Provide a context for how knowledge is used (and can be used to provide access to multiple perspectives on knowledge for a given context)
  • Be complex enough to provide links into several concepts that help students to differentiate how these concepts are used and relate to each other

VaNTH Courseware

VaNTH produced a large number of interactive courseware modules over its lifetime. Most of these are based on both HPL and Challenege Based Instruction. These modules are now housed in the VaNTH Courseware Repository. This courseware covers a large variety of topics and formats, and most are available for use free of charge. 

VaNTH Biomedical Engineering Curriculum Study

The VaNTH Curriculum Study was composed of two pieces. One piece was a Delphi study that attempted to define the concepts that should be taught to undergraduate BMEs, covering both the engineering and biology domains. This survey went to personnel in both academia and industry. A Delphi study is one that iterates, revisiting questions with inconclusive results until consensus is reached. This survey went two rounds, the first in 2005 and the second in 2007. Complete data for the 2005 first-round engineering domains are available here, and biology domains here. Overall data from the second round in 2007 are available here.  

For an overview of the first-round results, see this presentation from the Whitaker BME Education Summit in 2005. This study was also the subject of ASEE paper presentations in 2004 and 2007 and, specific to the biology domains, in 2008

The other piece of the overall curriculum study was a survey of what courses actually are required for BMEs at different universities, starting with accredited ones and later expanding to unaccredited. These surveys thus describe the de facto core curriculum in BME. For more on this, see this poster from the Third BME Education Summit held in 2008. 

For more details on either of these activities, including methodology and more complete results, please contact NCEER.