In his 20 years teaching biomedical engineering at Clemson University, John DesJardins has come to appreciate just how hard it can be for students to learn the process of design—especially for strong students who have always previously been successful. “They are used to knowing what the right answer is, and if they get the wrong answer, they want to know what the right answer is,” he explains. “Design is not like that. Design is fundamentally the idea that somebody is going to call your baby ugly and you have to get used to it. That idea, that you can put your most creative idea out there for somebody to look at and they say it’s not good enough, challenges many people right to their core insecurity.”
That kind of insight led DesJardins in 2014 to develop a new curriculum for his biomedical design students aimed at giving them real-world immersion in the field and opportunities to become accustomed to “the process of iteration” that’s required for success. Partnering with a local surgery department and Clemson’s technology transfer office, DesJardins developed a program offering a 10-week summer immersion experience for rising seniors, a two-semester experience centered on medical device design, and an E-Team development and sustainability program that provided mentorship and resources to promising teams so they could pursue commercialization of their designs. The program was funded by a VentureWell Faculty Grant.
Six years later, that $35,000 investment has generated impressive returns. It set off an expansion in DesJardins’ department, leading to the creation of 5 new courses in bioengineering design and medical device commercialization, a new Masters of Engineering program that focuses on biomedical device design (serving more than 300 students) and the training of four new professors and additional consultants in medical device design. What’s more, as a result of the “awesome student and program results,” DesJardins reports, the school received a $250,000 grant from the NIH, and a $1,500,000 gift to endow the new program and continue the work.
“[VentureWell Faculty Grants offer educators] an opportunity to prove to their departments and peers that they are making a difference, and that their students matter.”
—John DesJardins, Professor of Bioengineering, Clemson University | Faculty grant recipient, 2014; Founder of The Design and Entrepreneurship Network
Not insignificantly, the grant had positive consequences for DesJardins, as well. “I was going up for tenure. The grant was in support of my faculty duties in design,” he reported. “Senior design faculty spend much of their time on non-research lab activities, and their funding suffers. Grants like this offer faculty an opportunity to prove to their departments and peers that they are making a difference, and that their students matter.”
The new design program also triggered broader cultural shifts at the university, DesJardins reports. “The bioengineering program now allows the acceleration of exceptional senior design technologies into a second year of design, testing, manufacturing, and entrepreneurial development, and the enhanced opportunity for these projects and teams to apply for E-Team grants,” he explained in his grant report. “As a result of this, our tech transfer office is now more willing to file IP for our teams, and the department is committed to moving these teams and ideas forward.” Indeed, one of DesJardins’ E-Teams applied for a patent for their innovation, a drilling tool for orthopedic surgeons.
Understanding just what it takes to move an idea forward is another lesson that student engineers learn in DesJardins’ new courses, he notes. “They get up in front of us for a whole year, and they tell us what their ideas are, and they keep putting lipstick on the pig, and you are like, Yeah, it’s still ugly,” he says with a laugh. “Until they start thinking creatively and innovatively, and iterate, and understand that that is the process we are trying to teach them, they don’t get it. And that is, fundamentally, what we are trying to teach them: to think creatively, to adapt, and to be okay with insecurity.”
Read more about DesJardins’ work with industry and university collaborations and how strategic partnerships helped drive innovation.