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Best in class

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Sarah Rooney receives national biomedical engineering teaching award

For biomedical engineering students, biomechanics—the science of how the human body moves—is essential preparation for careers in medical device development, orthopedics, and more.

At the University of Delaware, biomedical engineering students learn these lessons from a rising star in engineering education: Sarah Rooney, an assistant professor and director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.  

Rooney is this year’s winner of the Biomedical Engineering Teaching Award from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). This award is given annually by the society’s Biomedical Engineering Division (BED) “to recognize contributions in the field of biomedical engineering education by new faculty members as evidenced by innovative teaching materials, curricula, textbooks and/or professional papers and by activity in ASEE/BED and/or other biomedical engineering organizations,” according to the ASEE. To be eligible, faculty members must have no more than five years of post-secondary teaching experience with primary course responsibility.

Rooney joined UD in 2015 shortly after earning her doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught a variety of courses, from the essential Introduction to Biomedical Engineering to the elective Engineering Exercise and Sports, a class she developed that integrates concepts from engineering, physiology and exercise science to help students define, measure, and design exercise technology.

In the classroom, Rooney asks students to work through problems in groups during breakout sessions. She checks their understanding through quick clicker quizzes.

She demonstrates concepts in clear, insightful, fun ways. For example, to teach torque, a twisting or rotational force the human body undergoes often, she uses a pool noodle with lines drawn on it. As she twists the noodle, students can see how the lines bend and contort.

“Demonstrations like these help to translate something conceptual and math-heavy into something students can feel,” she said.

Rooney aims to make a small but lasting impact on students every day.

“My goal is to walk away from a lesson and know that I explained the material in a way that made a difference for my students,” she said. Every day is different, and you can’t always predict what will stick.

“That’s the fun challenge: coming up with ways to instruct that will reach every student,” she said.

Rooney also imparts lessons in the laboratory and design studio. She is instrumental in the junior design and senior design programs, courses that require biomedical engineering students to propose solutions to real-world problems under budgetary constraints. In 2017, a team of students advised by Rooney placed third in the Undergraduate Design Competition at the Summer Biomechanics Bioengineering Biotransport Conference (SB^3C) for an affordable and portable cardio training device for manual wheelchair users.

Rooney has also collaborated with assistant professor Jason Gleghorn to integrate 3D printing and microfluidics technologies into a Quantitative Systems Physiology course, giving students the opportunity to work with technology to model the cardiovascular system on a tiny chip.

Students in biomedical engineering learn core engineering principles and a broad range of tangible and adaptable skills. They learn how to understand society’s unmet needs, engineer solutions, and work together in teams.

“We want our undergraduate students to be prepared for a changing world,” Rooney said, and she keeps that in mind as director of the undergraduate curriculum in biomedical engineering.

Of course, it also helps when your students are ready to apply their skills to the unknown.

“I have super engaged students who are eager to learn and like to be challenged,” she said.  

Dawn Elliott, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, praised Rooney’s approach to teaching.

“Her dedication to her students is evident in every single class,” said Elliott. “She varies her instructional techniques and uses innovative methods to ensure a learner-centric environment, and she regularly uses mid-semester and end-of-semester feedback to improve her courses.”

Rooney is also an outstanding mentor.

Erica Comber, a former student of Rooney’s, is now a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

“For someone who possesses an incredible amount of knowledge, Dr. Rooney never assumes that she knows that best career path for any of her students,” Comber said. “She encourages us to reflect on what we want from our careers and offers words of encouragement that enable us to overcome our insecurities and self-doubt. My conversations with Dr. Rooney made me realize that I wanted to apply to Ph.D. programs, and where I am today is a direct consequence of her never-ending support.”

Mary Athanasopoulos, a rising senior in the biomedical engineering program, said Rooney is dedicated to students’ learning, both in and beyond the classroom.

“She has guided us from our first day in the program; she's taught us what it means to be biomedical engineers, the value in our unique position between medicine and engineering, that our successes are dictated by our work ethics, and that our failures are as integral to that process as our triumphs,” Athanasopoulos said. “She asks a lot of us as students, but not any more than she asks of herself as an academic and mentor. I respect and admire her ability to juggle teaching, advising, research, and life outside of the university. Dr. Rooney has endeavored to make UD Biomedical Engineering a community and I think I speak for everyone in thanking her for her efforts.”

The journey to excellence in engineering education

Rooney has spent the past dozen years refining her craft as an engineering educator. It was a dream that was shaped over the course of her undergraduate career at the University of Michigan. As a first-year student, this former gymnast thought she wanted to be a sports medicine doctor. An introductory class in engineering changed everything.

“I enjoyed the idea of being able to create something as an engineer versus diagnose someone as a doctor,” she said.

When she started tutoring fellow students, she realized she had a knack for making difficult concepts comprehensible to others. She earned a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Michigan and then went to the University of Pennsylvania for her doctoral degree.

By the time Rooney went to the University of Pennsylvania, she knew that excellence in undergraduate teaching was her ultimate career goal. She spent time as a teaching assistant and sought out resources to refine her teaching skills and methods, all while conducting (and publishing) research on musculoskeletal injury mechanisms and the adaptations of tissue to load. Mentors such as LeAnn Dourte, who went on to win the ASEE Biomedical Engineering Teaching Award in 2016, helped her get there.

“I’ve seen some of my mentors receive this award, and it means a lot to follow in their footsteps,” said Rooney.

Dourte, who is now a senior lecturer in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while working with Rooney in the classroom, she saw firsthand her willingness to explore and develop new teaching pedagogies.

“Her passion for engineering education is inspiring, and it is no surprise that she is being recognized for her work,” said Dourte. “This award is a testament to the bright and exciting career ahead of her.”

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