How one U of T Engineering educational program kept thriving during COVID-19

A student from George Harvey Collegiate Institute presents a diabetic foot brace designed as part of the Discovery outreach program in June 2019. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s program successfully pivoted online.

Locke Davenport Huyer (ChemE PhD 1T9) remembers the moment his team had to make the call.

“All of the programming was developed and ready to go,” says Davenport Huyer, now a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. “We were going to start right after March Break, but then everything shut down.”

Davenport Huyer is the co-founder and Logistics Director of Discovery, an educational initiative that originated within U of T’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering. Since it launched in 2016, the program has engaged with hundreds of students from selected Toronto-area high schools to build critical thinking skills through inquiry focused learning.

The team knew right away that cancelling outright wasn’t going to be an option.

“The outcomes of this program can represent 10 or 15% of a student’s grade in a given course,” says Professor Dawn Kilkenny (BME, ISTEP), Faculty Liaison for Discovery.

“Fortunately, our amazing volunteer instructors are very driven, and they were willing to help any way they could.”

In a typical year, Grade 11 and 12 students in the Discovery program visit campus three times over the course of a semester. This enables them to immerse themselves within leading-edge engineering laboratory facilities such as the BME Undergraduate Teaching Laboratory, ChemE undergraduate labs, and the Myhal Fabrication Facility.

They also have the opportunity to interact with U of T Engineering graduate students, learning more about what it is like to study or conduct research in this field.

In between visits, the students continue to work in teams on their research projects modelled on the capstone courses taken by undergraduate engineering students. Topics are linked to the high school science curriculum, but the hands-on projects emphasize skills such as iterative design, collaboration and human factors engineering.

For example, a team of physics students might design a low-cost device to measure breathing rate in asthma patients, while a team of chemistry students might work to optimize a biomaterial that releases drugs at a slow, steady rate to treat chronic illnesses.

“From the beginning, I knew that Discovery would be a game changer for us,” says Sara Dicks, a secondary teacher and head of the science department at George Harvey Collegiate Institute.

“Equity of access is a significant barrier to the student population of my school. This program provides opportunities for students to see themselves within the context of attending a top Canadian university, and hopefully ignite creativity, innovation and a passion for science.”

With campus visits off the table, the Discovery team quickly set up a virtual classroom so that teams could meet with their U of T Engineering graduate student mentors. They also re-designed the research project to focus on the analysis of large blocks of data.

For example, physics students focused on classifying patient breathing and coughing patterns using data generated by smartphone accelerometers.

The team also partnered with Labster, a company that provides virtual lab simulations for secondary and post-secondary students.

“The simulation software enabled us to walk the high school students through assays and other procedures in a way that was very similar to what they would have experienced in our facilities,” says Kilkenny. “That way, when they were given the data challenge, they could connect the concepts.”

The culminating assessment, which would normally have been a scientific symposium-style poster session, was replaced with an online slide presentation. For the fall semester, this was changed to pre-recorded video presentations, which Davenport Huyer says helped reduce the intimidation factor that can accompany a live presentation.

“I think moving online also gave us an opportunity to establish better relationships between the high school participants and the graduate student mentors,” he says. “Instead of three visits, they met on a weekly basis, and they continue to do so right now. That makes for more meaningful mentorship.”

Davenport Huyer, Kilkenny and the team recently published a journal article in Biomedical Engineering Education that describes how the program successfully pivoted online, offering a model for other institutions around the world.

For her part, Dicks says that she and her students are excited and grateful to know that the program will continue, albeit with modifications.

“Discovery is an amazing opportunity for staff and students alike,” she says. “At its heart, it’s about how to think critically and analytically, and the learning pathways it adds to our curriculum are not matched by any other program I am aware of.”

“COVID added a layer of complexity, but we were still able to deliver the true essence of the program, and the benefits that come with that,” she says.