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NSF to fund bioengineering consortium that includes HST

The National Science Foundation has announced that it will award a nearly $10 million grant to a consortium, of which the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) is a member, for the development of an Engineering Research Center in bioengineering educational technologies.

The consortium, known as VaNTH, comprises lead institution Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, the University of Texas at Austin (UT) and Harvard/MIT (HST). VaNTH intends to study, develop and implement learning technologies in bioengineering education. Ultimately, the work of the Engineering Research Center (ERC) will impact both the broad field of engineering and a wide variety of institutions, including a minority outreach component.

"We need a new level of educational tools to advance the frontiers of America's bioengineering industry," said Eugene Wong, NSF's assistant director for engineering, in announcing the grant. "These tools need to integrate basic bioengineering knowledge with the latest understanding of the learning process and the latest computer-based educational systems."

The ERC presents a unique opportunity by placing engineers, life scientists and learning scientists on an equal footing to address that need. Experts in these various disciplines will work together to study how bioengineers learn most effectively and how this education can take a quantum leap forward over the next five years. The ERC also requires the synergy of researchers from four academic sites, along with a host of industrial partners. NSF will disburse $2 million per year for the duration of the grant.

The researchers expect to develop modular, computer-based courseware, curricula and educational technology tailored to the needs of bioengineering education, and to disseminate these products to engineering educators. Industrial partners and national laboratories will participate in the research and education, and in developing ways to transfer knowledge and technological advances to industry.

The VaNTH consortium competed for funding over the course of 10 months. Originally, 14 universities or groups expressed interest in the competition; subsequently, seven groups submitted applications. VaNTH and one other consortium were selected as finalists in the fall of 1998. Each group presented a lengthy proposal to an NSF panel at site visits in December 1998, followed by a "reverse site visit" to NSF headquarters in February 1999. The funding decision was announced October 14.

The principal investigator of the ERC is Thomas R. Harris, who directs the biomedical engineering department at Vanderbilt. Kenneth R. Diller (ScD 1972) and Robert A. Linsenmeier are the leading collaborators from UT and Northwestern, respectively. Two team members, Jonathan Valvano of UT and Joseph T. Walsh of Nothwestern, who also head their respective biomedical engineering graduate committees, received the PhD from HST in medical engineering/medical physics. Martha L. Gray and Joseph V. Bonventre, HST co-directors, represented the HST contingent of VaNTH as site leaders.

"This has been a great example of how a few leading universities with complementary strengths, at the forefront of bioengineering education and research, can come together to establish a consortium which will define bioengineering education for the first part of the next millennium," Dr. Bonventre said. "We are so grateful for the hard work and dedication of numerous faculty members of the Harvard and MIT communities who contributed in such important ways to the success of the consortium."

"One of the most exciting aspects of this ERC is the way it will influence engineering education generally by establishing pedagogical strategies that can evolve with rapidly changing times," Dr. Gray said. "HST has had the privilege of gathering a dynamic group from a range of disciplines within MIT and Harvard and then collaborating with learning scientists and bioengineers from three other institutions. It's been an amazing process, and we're looking forward to the next five years with great anticipation."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 1999.

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