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New Global Health Design Specialization in the CoE


SeinkoThe fundamental purpose of an engineer, no matter his or her individual discipline or personal research interests, is to identify problems and design solutions. With the understanding that the development of this skill is crucial to an engineer’s education, and with a vision to present students with the most complete design experience possible, ME Assistant Professor Kathleen Sienko and Dr. Aileen Huang-Saad of Biomedical Engineering created a new minor for UM engineering undergraduates. The Global Health Design (GHD) specialization, established this year, uses international field study to offer a unique method of learning the process of design. 

Students interested in pursuing a GHD specialization learn the theme and destination of their field study in their junior year, and enroll in one of a wide selection of cornerstone classes specific to that theme. This year’s site is Kumasi, Ghana, and the theme—maternal and infant health—is based on two UN Millennium Development Goals. In addition to a cornerstone class, students are also required to take either an International Engineering or Social Entrepreneurship seminar. In preparation for the one-month field study, students devote part of the winter semester of their junior year to taking workshops on Ghanaian culture and to familiarizing themselves with the basics of the OB/GYN field through observation at the UM Hospital.

In the summer term of their junior year, GHD students travel to Ghana in teams of four and spend the month of August living in homestays. A weekly rotation of clinical observation exposes students to the full range of health care services available in that region, from tertiary to primary care. At the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, the teams observe a variety of procedures in the labor and delivery ward, including Cesarean sections and elective surgeries. In addition, they experience various district hospitals throughout the Sene district as well as CHPS (community-based health planning and services) compounds, which provide healthcare to more rural communities.

After four weeks of intense observation and interviews with local medical professionals, each team identifies a single challenge currently facing the Ghanaian healthcare system. This process of scoping out an issue from personal observation and evaluation makes the GHD specialization truly distinct. “It’s different from the senior design project because the students go out and find a problem. They’re not assigned one,” said Sienko.

Upon returning to Ann Arbor, the teams spend the fall semester designing devices to address the problems they have identified. Over winter break, at least one member from each team is selected to return to Ghana to perform field site testing. With these findings, students redesign during the winter semester, and are ready to present their practical, tested solutions in time for graduation. In addition to presenting at the Design Expo, students submit articles describing their work to relevant conferences and journals, such as the Journal of Medical Devices.

Sienko sees the GHD specialization as especially beneficial to students because it gives them the opportunity to identify a problem and design a solution with a specific community in mind instead of the more abstract constraints often assigned by instructors in design courses. “Students learn to design within a cultural context,” said Sienko. “If the product should be built in Ghana, it should incorporate locally available products. Also, the design must be intuitive to the user so that the product can be used without a manual, since you can’t assume such a manual will be available or that users will be trained.”


Huang-Saad, a lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and assistant director of academic programs in the Center for Entrepreneurship, helped Sienko develop the GHD specialization and is developing a series of courses in social entrepreneurship for the College of Engineering. She, too, recognizes the advantage of the GHD experience and believes in the importance of exposing students to the bigger picture. “We want to move students beyond simple prototype design. We want them to see not only the design process but also the context in which their projects will be used,” said Huang-Saad.

Joey Perosky, the program’s pilot student, is in his second semester of design on a project to develop portable obstetrics and gynecology examination equipment. In August 2010, Sienko plans to take two four-person teams to Ghana. One team will be composed of GHD students and the other of non-GHD students. The latter team is for individuals who want to participate in project scoping without having to meet the more intense GHD requirements. Non-GHD students who take this opportunity will complete only one semester of design.   


So far, most interest in the specialization has come from ME and BME undergraduates. This trend is most likely due to the product-oriented nature of the projects thus far, but Sienko hopes to broaden the program into other departments. “We want faculty to plug their field sites into this model,” she said. An aim to make projects more process- and structure-oriented could help attract students from other CoE departments. Said Huang-Saad, “[The program] can only be made better with a multi-disciplinary approach. We encourage all disciplines to participate.”

Sienko is enthusiastic about the future of the GHD specialization. Possible themes for upcoming years include physical medicine and rehabilitation, emergency medicine, and road safety. She would also like to explore the formation of relationships with other programs, such as a joint UM/Ghana engineering team with students from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) or the University of Ghana (UG). The goal of such a partnership would either be to develop complementary projects or to transition projects to the Ghanaian team. Another possible partnership could involve the Ross Business School and could work toward creating business plans for designs with promising potential. “We plan to engage the UM entrepreneurial community to take appropriate designs to the next level,” Sienko said.

With these current and future plans for the GHD specialization, Sienko and Huang-Saad have created an invaluable opportunity for UM engineers that is unique among peer institutions. 

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