More than 500 undergrads participate in project as part of a Virtual Summer Internship program

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold this spring, biomedical engineering students across the globe were faced with losing summer internships and other hands-on experiences. That’s where the Biomedical Engineering (BME) Alliance between Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic stepped in. The alliance—originally formed to bolster opportunities to collaborate on research education between CWRU and Cleveland Clinic—launched a Virtual Summer Internship program, an initiative designed not only to assist students, but also to help combat the pandemic by encouraging the creation of innovative solutions.

Held over the course of 10 weeks, the internship program attracted approximately 500 undergraduate engineering students from top universities around the world. Each week involved seminars offered by researchers, faculty members and other experts in the areas of technology, biomedical engineering and research, eventually culminating in a design challenge among participants. Spearheaded by Matthew Williams, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve, the challenge tasked student groups with developing, designing and testing solutions to address the need for enhanced-use masks—particularly on college campuses—to help mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. In August, the alliance debuted four-minute pitch videos created by more than 120 teams.

“We were getting contacted regularly by BME students who had lost their summer internships and were looking for some way to replace them,” said Steve Fening, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Case-Coulter Translational Research Partnership. “We sought to provide a non-traditional academic experience for students—not exactly like an internship in a company, but different from a typical classroom.”

“The mask-oriented project is both personal and topical for students,” said Williams. “I am rather impressed by the thinking, overall curiosity and creativity expressed by the students.” 

To help students work through the design process, Williams  led weekly one-hour live seminars on all facets of engineering design, from brainstorming and assessing user needs to creating business models and testing prototypes. 

Williams also counseled many of the teams, each composed of three to five students from different institutions, as they worked on solutions. Their solutions included more comfortable masks, as well as innovations such as a rapid mask sterilizing system and interactive, web-based training courses to help students understand the role mask-wearing plays in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and what they can do to facilitate mask-wearing on their campuses.

“After not being able to go back to school after spring break, I was scared about not having an opportunity lined up for the summer after my freshman year,” said Case Western Reserve University student Isabella Zayas, one of 13 CWRU students to take part. “This internship was the perfect way for me to connect with other students around the country on a design project and learn more about the awesome research being done in my own community as a Case [Western Reserve] student.”

Ultimately, the students’ designs competed for the most “likes” on social media. Those that garnered the most attention were:

  1. Unforgettable Mask (911 likes)
  2. The Perfect DIY COVID Mask Designed by Biomedical Engineers (840 likes)
  3. BamboGuard (835 likes)

View all of the students’ pitches.

Participants in the Virtual Summer Internship were energized by working on the summer-long design challenge. 

“It was very exciting to work on a project that has a direct application to the current crisis in our world, where we are able to see the potential benefits and positive outcomes our product could provide,” said Alexis Porco, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student at the University of Virginia, whose team collaborated to create uvCLEAN.

As the Virtual Summer Internship came to a close, organizers from the BME Alliance expressed gratitude that they were able to provide undergrads an opportunity to participate in real-world design projects and foster passion in students for engineering design. 

“The bread and butter of the BME Alliance are students,” said Robin Crotty, department manager and supervisor of BME education in the biomedical engineering department of Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute. “We knew these students had great summer opportunities lined up that, through no fault of their own, weren’t happening anymore. To help these students achieve something this summer was so important to us.”