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Enderle's students deploy their skills
to help people with disabilities
December 7, 1998
Just before Thanksgiving, John Enderle's senior engineering students are working hard on their final design projects. Most of them have long since become accustomed to late nights in the laboratory.
The projects they are working on didn't have their genesis in the laboratory, though. And the enthusiasm that is apparent when the students enter the laboratory to work on the projects belies the resistance Enderle met last summer when he explained to the students what their senior design projects would entail.
Enderle, a professor of electrical and systems engineering and one of this year's University Teaching Fellows, wasn't really surprised by the students' response. The projects, after all, require more than engineering knowledge..
Working closely with Carol Magliocco, of the A.J. Pappanikou Center, Connecticut's University Affiliated Program for disability studies, Lee McLean, the center's director, and William Pruehsner, a teaching assistant, Enderle came up with an educational opportunity that required his students to explore an area that was largely unfamiliar to them.
The 21 seniors were charged with meeting and interviewing approximately 50 Connecticut residents. Each of the interview subjects is a person with disabilities, and each student had to conduct an interview with at least two subjects. That was for starters.
"Initially many of the students resisted," Enderle says of the novel project, which is funded by a five-year National Science Foundation grant.
"This transcends the typical engineering project, which may be accomplished entirely in a laboratory setting. The students had to go out into the field and interview people. Sometimes the people have communication skill problems. Many have a caretaker. The students had no idea what to expect. Understandably, there was some initial fear on their part."
Following the interviews, the entire class got together for a brainstorming session during which they cataloged a list of problems confronting the people they had interviewed - problems that might be solved with engineering.
And then each of the students chose to work on at least one of those problems - and the person with disabilities who went with it - as the assignment that stood between him or her and graduation.
Enderle smiles, as he recalls the evolution of the project. "It has been a humanizing experience," he says. "The students quickly transcended their initial anxiety. They discovered how exciting these projects can be. Now they are thoroughly engaged in solving real problems for real people. Many of the students who were reluctant to conduct initial interviews have become quite close to the people they are working with and have gone back for many follow-up meetings."
Enderle, who is director of the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program, came to UConn from the North Dakota State University in 1995. Working with many other biomedical engineers in the region, the University's bioengineering program, as the biomedical engineering program was formerly known, was quickly transformed with a $1 million grant from the Whitaker Foundation.
The projects to aid disabled people are only one example of the creativity he brings to the assignment. With the support of the Whitaker Foundation, the faculty in the biomedical engineering graduate program has grown dramatically and student enrollment has followed suit. Less than a year and a half ago, there were only 10 students. Today there are nearly 50, including 10 Ph.D. candidates.
Enderle came to his own interest in biomedical engineering in high school. "I had a great mentor in high school," he says. "He helped me to look at possible career options."
Though history was the subject that had most captured his attention through his formative education, Enderle, who grew up on Long Island, enrolled in Suffolk County Community College after high school. It was there that he first discovered the biomedical field that would become the focus of his life's work. He earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
But enthusiasm for his subject is only one part of what makes Enderle a good teacher, according to his students.
"Professor Enderle brings both enthusiasm and understanding to teaching," says Danyel Tarinelli, one of Enderle's teaching assistants and one of a growing number of women who are majoring in biomedical engineering. "He is very available to his students. He listens to their concerns and tries to incorporate a lot of their feedback into changes in the program."
When he found, for instance, that regular Friday undergraduate discussion sessions with teaching assistants were often perceived as lacking educational value, he formalized the program, based on student input. Instead of simply meeting with teaching assistants, now students have formal computer lab time and a quiz every week that is designed to complement the rest of their education.
Enderle was also instrumental in the creation of BEACON, the Biomedical Engineering Alliance for Central Connecticut. The program is a collaborative arrangement between the Storrs campus, the Health Center, Trinity College, and the University of Hartford and many of Connecticut's leading hospitals..
Initially funded through the Whitaker Foundation grant, BEACON aims to enhance educational opportunities in biomedical engineering and opportunities for medical technology transfer within the state.
The future of biotechnology and biomedical engineering in Connecticut is very bright, Enderle predicts. "There are already many companies in the field," he says, "and programs like BEACON are helping create the future."
"Students want professors who care about their subject and care about learning," Enderle says. Caring about the subject, he clearly believes, extends to creating both innovative learning opportunities and helping to create a future for the next generation of engineers.
"I think there are three key factors that contribute to a teacher's effectiveness," says Tahl Smith-Rapaport, a junior majoring in computer science. "There's the personality and the ability to interact effectively with students, there's the teacher's knowledge, and there's the teacher's ability to convey the knowledge to students. Professor Enderle excels in all three areas. He's one of the best teachers I've ever had." .