ENHANCING BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING EDUCATION WITH INTERNSHIPS. P.H. Tan*, C.S. Gwee* and K.S. Tang**

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1 ENHANCING BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING EDUCATION WITH INTERNSHIPS P.H. Tan*, C.S. Gwee* and K.S. Tang** * Ngee Ann Polytechnic/School of Engineering, ECE Division, Singapore ** Ngee Ann Polytechnic/School of Engineering, SoE Directorate, Singapore Abstract Biomedical engineering is a relatively new engineering field in Singapore, gaining prominence over the past two decades with governmental initiatives. Students enrolled in this field of engineering are typically unsure about their future career paths and prospects. By incorporating internships into the course curriculum, students have the opportunity to work in a related industry and discover for themselves the potential possibilities in biomedical engineering. Simultaneously, industry partners have the opportunity to assess the capabilities of potential candidates for employment, as well as provide feedback to the educational institutions to fine-tune their training to match industry s requirements. Students from the Biomedical Engineering diploma course in Ngee Ann Polytechnic have been undergoing such internship training since the course started in The interns are currently much sought after by the local industry, with some organisations taking interns exclusively from this course. Many graduates have also found employment with the companies they interned with. Overseas partners have also responded very well to such internship arrangements, and students have interned with educational institutions as well as multi-national companies in countries such as Australia, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, United Kingdom and USA. Some students, who completed overseas internship stints, took up further studies in the host countries. Additionally, many collaborative projects have developed as a result of such industry partnerships. Work started during the internship evolved into fulllength projects involving industry partners, students and academic staff, elevating the technology level and skills. Overall, such industry exposure has become a win-win partnership for NP and the industry as it creates new opportunities for all parties concern. Keywords: Biomedical Engineering, Internship, Industry, Employment, Partnership, Assessment Introduction Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) introduced the multidisciplinary diploma in Biomedical Engineering (BME) in 2001, the first of its kind in Singapore, in response to the anticipated manpower needs for engineering technologists to interface between engineering and the rapidly growing life sciences industry an industry targeted by the Singapore government to become one of the pillars of Singapore s economy. The emphasis of this course is to train graduates to support both the usage of specialised equipment needed by the life sciences industry and for the research and development of newer, innovative equipment for the rapid growth of the industry. The objective of the diploma course is to provide training that will equip students with essential knowledge and skills in biomedical engineering to meet the needs of the healthcare industry (specifically) and the life sciences industry (more generally). The knowledge and skills targeted are for specifying, evaluating, installing and testing (including safety testing) of medical equipment, laboratory equipment and clinical systems. This paper highlights the role of internship as a vehicle to enhance the training of biomedical engineers through NP s BME course. Students gain better insights into the industry and potential employment opportunities. Industry s feedback, as a result of the internship collaboration, was used to fine tune the course. Course Structure This 3-year course comprises about 75% engineering, 12% life sciences and 13% interdisciplinary studies. The 2012 course structure is as follows: Table 1: BME Course Structure* ACADEMIC YEAR 1 Analogue Electronics BioPhysics Computer Programming Digital Electronics Electrical Technology Electronic Practical Skills Engineering Mathematics 1 Engineering Mathematics 2 Engineering Mechanics Introduction to Biomedical Engineering

2 ACADEMIC YEAR 2 Applications Programming Cell & Molecular Biology Electronic Design & Prototyping Electronic Project Design Practice Embedded System (ARM) Engineering Mathematics 3A Fundamentals of Control Systems Medical Instrumentation Physiological Systems Telecommunications Principles ACADEMIC YEAR 3 6-month Internship Biomedical Engineering Project Design Clinical Engineering Diagnostic, Therapeutic & Laboratory Equipment *Electives and interdisciplinary studies modules have been excluded from this table for simplicity. Course Delivery In view of the multi-disciplinary nature of the programme, this course is taught by faculty members from the School of Engineering (Electronic & Computer Engineering and Mechanical Engineering divisions) and the School of Life Sciences & Chemical Technology. Apart from the conventional lecture delivery and tutorial sessions, students spend about 60% of their contact hours in hands-on exploratory work. In their final year of study, students undertake a one-semester (approximately 6 months) internship with a relevant industry partner, as well as a one-semester biomedical engineering project design module. These two modules are cardinal in their preparation for employment. Internship Structure The main aim of the semester-long internship is to enable students to apply the academic knowledge acquired in the classroom to perform assignments in a real world environment and meet the academic accreditation and industry requirements. The internship is structured and supervised, with learning goals and training programmes clearly specified. The student s performance is graded, with joint assessment by industry and NP supervisors. The internship location can be local or overseas, or both if required. Allowance is usually provided to help the student with the cost of transportation and daily meals, and accommodation in the case of an overseas attachment. Industry Partners Relevant industry partners for the BME course include: Hospitals Device/Equipment distributors Device/Equipment manufacturers Device/Equipment service providers Pharmaceutical companies Regulatory bodies Research Institutes Local and Foreign Universities Other engineering/life sciences businesses Industry partners, sourced through business or personal contacts, are invited at the beginning of each semester to participate during the following semester. Participating organisations are required to provide a project proposal, with detailed specifications of desired outcomes and clear indications of employment obligations such as providing a reasonable work environment and compensatory allowance for the interns. Company Supervisors Each intern is assigned to a company supervisor at the start of his internship. Company supervisor s responsibilities include: briefing student intern on company policies, roles, functions, rules and regulations, safety and security, and operational aspects of its divisions; clearly discussing the internship requirements with the student intern; working with the student intern to complete company goals, duties and learning objectives; providing supervision and feedback to the student intern on his/her performance; meeting and discussing with the NP supervisor during company visits; assessing the student s workplace performance and work values. NP Supervisors Each intern is assigned to a NP supervisor prior to the start of his/her internship. This NP supervisor is typically an academic staff member of the School of Engineering who is actively involved with the BME course. NP supervisor s responsibilities include: briefing the student about the internship requirements, including assessment; familiarising the company supervisor with the internship requirements; working with the company supervisor to formalise a structured training programme for the student within the first two weeks of the internship programme; visiting the student regularly to monitor his/her progress and performance; holding discussions with the company supervisor to discuss the student s progress and performance and/or other operational issues; keeping in touch with the student via phone and reading his weekly reports logged online;

3 reviewing the company assessments and discussing with the company supervisors to ensure that assessments are carried out fairly and consistently; evaluating the student s performance through interviews, oral presentation, interim and final reports; seeking feedback from students about their internship experience; collating and providing feedback to evaluate the internship processes for subsequent improvements. Student Interns BME students in their second year of studies at NP are invited to participate in the internship programme. They can opt to intern during the first or second semester of their third year of studies. Application for internship is similar to a job application process in which the potential intern submits a resume to the company of his preference and may be required to attend interviews. Student intern s responsibilities include: following all the rules, regulations and normal requirements of the company; performing to the best of his ability all assigned tasks during internship; notifying the company supervisor and NP supervisor of any changes or problems which may develop during the internship; maintaining weekly reports of his work, problems and solutions, and achievements; submitting interim and final reports; making an oral presentation to peers and NP supervisors at the conclusion of the internship; evaluating the internship experience at the end of the internship period. Establishment Since 2003, at least 450 students have successfully completed their internships under this course. Many of these interns were subsequently employed by the companies they interned with. However, as the graduates are highly competitive, most left their places of employment after a short stint to pursue higher education. To date, industry partners include six public hospitals, one specialist centre and a private hospital. Some hospitals accept interns exclusively from NP s BME course even though four other local polytechnics offer similar courses. There are also arrangements to supply interns to specific hospitals every semester on a continual basis. Length of Internship The length of the internship is 6 months as industry feedback indicates that the nature of the industry requires a longer time to attain competency and at the same time, contribute back to the companies. Hospitalbased internship often requires students to have completed Clinical Engineering, a third year core module in NP s BME diploma course, to enhance job productivity. Industry Acceptance Hospitals and Government Agencies The first batch of BME students started its industry internship in July Industry partners were very encouraging and supportive of this initiative. However, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) broke out in Singapore in February The healthcare sector was severely strained while trying to contain the unprecedented epidemic and no hospital, private or public, was prepared to take the risk of training interns. The first batch of 14 interns was accepted for training by two local BME equipment/service vendors, a multi-national pharmaceutical manufacturer, an engineering firm, and the research laboratories of two local universities. The engagement of the interns at the local universities (Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore) was especially fortuitous because both universities were considering the launch of undergraduate BME programmes in Through these internships, both universities were favourably disposed towards BME diploma graduates from NP and accepted applicants from this course the following year. To date, many BME diploma graduates from NP have obtained bachelor degrees or higher from both universities, with many of them receiving scholarships for their studies at these institutions. The second batch of interns (from the same cohort) fared significantly better. Industry s confidence in the capabilities of the interns was evident in the offers made to 26 interns, including offers from two local tertiary hospitals and a German university. It was a natural progression that hospital-based clinical research centres became interested in becoming partners. Since 2006, there has been a steady demand for interns to assist in clinical research at the National University Hospital. At least six national research institutes, including those from Singapore s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), have continually requested interns from this course. This arrangement has led to numerous collaborative efforts, resulting in publications and national awards for the parties concerned. Such successes have also spawned collaborations between staff members of both

4 institutions, leading to more research and exchange opportunities. Regulatory bodies, such as Health Sciences Authority (HSA), have offered numerous postings for work exposure to medical device regulation. A number of graduates have also been employed by HSA post internship. Private Companies Many multi-national companies (MNC) have also actively supported this internship programme. Interns attached to such companies have enjoyed the opportunities of business travel with the MNC, and in the process, acquired a global perspective of the BME business. Equipment and service vendors have been pivotal to the success of this programme. Since inception, this group of employers have been the most proactive in engaging students for training. Many of the long-term partners take on the role of mentors to the interns, patiently moulding greenhorns into confident sales and service staff members. The aptitude and attitude of the interns enable employers to train them to supplement their regular staff strength. Interns often assist the company s engineers in field work, and even accompanied them on major overseas assignments, such as the setting up of a new hospital in a developing country. This sector of the industry offers employment to many BME graduates. International Internships In the international arena, the interns have also performed well. An intern at German university not only designed a database system to solve a problem for her professor, but also conducted the training for the German staff members and students in the usage of the system. Two interns to a Japanese university successfully designed a detection device that won an award at a national competition. Students have also interned at multi-national companies in China, UK and USA. Overseas universities in Australia, Germany, Hong Kong and Japan are established partners. Overseas internship has been a regular feature of the internship programme, attracting applications from top students of the course. Industry Feedback The best testimony that the BME industry has benefitted from this programme is its continuing support in offering internship placements. Attached is an accolade from a major service provider to local hospitals: We really appreciate the attachment students from your polytechnic as they provide us ideas to simplify our daily routine work and offer valuable feedback. They also help to us in times of high demand on work. We find that the 6-month attachment is a win-win situation for both the student and the company. Local hospitals and vendors were impressed with the coverage of hospital-related course contents. This has led to a number of requests for short courses to be conducted by NP s BME team for industry partners. Such interactions also enable the BME course development team to update the course contents with the latest industry developments, requirements and standards. Student Feedback Module evaluation on the internship module is conducted regularly and has achieved very good feedback consistently. For example, in 2011, students rated this module 5.56 out of a maximum of 6.00, agreeing strongly that the module has greatly enhanced their overall learning. Through internship, students become more aware of the role of engineers in different areas of the healthcare industry. The job function of an engineer in a hospital environment can be very different from that of a medical device company. Exposure to cutting edge technology and first class researchers at national research institutes has inspired many graduates to pursue higher education and seek employment in research positions. Employment Opportunities Although many of the interns were offered employment with the companies they interned with, the uptake has not been high. This is partly due to the situation that male Singaporeans typically have to complete two years of national service with the army, civil defence force, or police force, prior to taking up employment. Despite the high proportion of female students enrolled in this course, hence more graduates available for employment, the academic competitiveness of students from this course compelled a large number (up to 65%) of any cohort to enrol in degree courses immediately upon graduation. Some sectors of the industry have countered with offers of training programmes bundled with scholarships for degree courses to attract potential good employees. Nonetheless, the rapport established during internship has led to many opportunities, including employment. Conclusions The incorporation of a practical training experience in the BME course curriculum has been shown to benefit the industry, the students and the academia. Industry partners enjoyed the opportunities to assess potential employees and provide feedback to influence the training of graduates with suitable skills. Students experienced working in related industries which help

5 them with career decisions and employment opportunities. Interaction with industry partners enhances academic staff members' industry knowledge and offers collaboration opportunities, including staff exchanges. It will appear that an internship partnership is vital to all parties to succeed in a vibrant and rapidly blossoming industry like Biomedical Engineering. Acknowledgements You may acknowledge (when appropriate) the organisations who have funded or extended their facilities for doing the research work.

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