Over the course of two nights in early October, the excited hum of voices could be heard in Engineering 7 for the first ever Biomedical Stakeholder Café. In a partnership between the Faculty of Engineering and the Library, with support from a LITE Seed Grant and the Dean of Engineering’s Office, Dr. Jennifer Howcroft, lecturer in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, and Dr. Kate Mercer, engineering and research services librarian and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, organized the event to connect capstone teams with health care community stakeholders.
Dr. Kate Mercer (left) and Dr. Jennifer Howcroft (right). Picture credit: Annik Bilodeau
More than 100 students across 23 capstone projects from four programs (BME, SYDE, MECH, and GENE) participated in the event alongside diverse stakeholders who represented a broad cross-section of the health care community, including people with lived experiences. Mercer shared that a key driving force behind the event was, “To teach students that the best designs often come from thorough and holistic research that includes talking to people — end users, supporters, and influencers of technologies. Having these conversations in a structured and rigorous way can yield insights that students didn’t know they needed but will prove crucial to their designed solutions.”
Prior to the event, students attended a preparatory workshop led by Howcroft and Mercer to learn the basics of stakeholder interviewing, fostering their curiosity and empathy, and building valuable skills they can take with them to their future co-op roles and professional careers.
During the Café, student teams were matched with relevant stakeholders for 15-minute conversations to connect with people working and living in the problem space they are exploring. Howcroft commented, “In my experience advising capstone teams, students have a much stronger sense of their problem space, and ideate stronger and more creative solutions, after connecting with a stakeholder. However, they often spend a lot of time trying to find a stakeholder who will talk to them, particularly in the health care community. We sought to make this easier for teams by facilitating these connections.”
Biomedical Stakeholder Café in E7. Picture credit: Tanya Snyder
After the event, both students and stakeholders provided their feedback so that Howcroft and Mercer can study the effectiveness and impact of such an opportunity. Mercer shared, “Most research in this area is focused only on the student and instructor perspective. However, the stakeholders are the most important part of this event”. Howcroft continued, “Our goal is to foster long-term relationships with the local healthcare community. These relationships are crucial to realizing events like this and build a sense of community that extends beyond campus.”
The impacts of the Café are already being felt on campus. Dr. Ewen MacDonald, professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, who is supervising one of the participating student capstone teams shared, ”Through the Café, they were able to meet with multiple individuals with hearing loss who provided valuable insight into the situations that they find particularly challenging. Further, the students were able to gain valuable feedback from the stakeholders on possible ways a device could aid in these situations and key factors that such a design should address. In addition to the valuable information they gained that will guide their design, the interactions with the stakeholders reinforced the students’ motivation for the project.”
Looking to the future, the goal is to establish this as an annual event to continue to support biomedical studies capstone teams and ideally expand to cover more diverse areas, populations, and topics. Howcroft and Mercer said about the ongoing value of this project, “We believe this could be an amazing event to foster community connections and deepen real-world insights in capstone projects while providing students with invaluable experiential learning and skill building opportunities.” With ongoing funding and support across campus, this could become a reality.
Biomedical Stakeholder Café in E7. Picture credit: Amanda Brown