Eager for higher education? An innovative online program means that busy biomeds can earn a bachelor’s degree—without even leaving their hometowns.

 It is a classic catch-22: An experienced biomedical engineering technician (BMET) hoping to further his career through additional education cannot make it happen—because he has a career. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)—a campus of Purdue University and Indiana University—and the ARAMARK Corp, Philadelphia, biomeds working full time no longer have to choose between their jobs and their education.

“Our concern was that most of our managers interested in a degree- completion program didn’t have the flexibility of leaving their accounts for extended periods of time,” says Jeffrey H. Knapp, vice president, human resources, ARAMARK Healthcare. “One of the things that made this program very attractive to us, in addition to the reputation of the University itself, was the distance-learning aspect.”

Modern technology—and a bit of out-of-the-box thinking—makes it possible for students pursuing their bachelor’s of science (BS) degree in biomedical engineering technology at IUPUI to satisfy every requirement and receive their degree—without so much as visiting Indianapolis, let alone setting foot on the IUPUI campus.

“The degree is available at a distance,” explains Barbara Christe, program director, Biomedical Engineering Technology, and associate professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology, at IUPUI, who adds that students may have to find local sources for lower-level courses like math and chemistry. All specialized BMET courses, however, are offered via the Internet. “We’ve been offering online BMET learning for our associate’s degree for quite a while, with success,” she says.

Virtual Classroom, Tangible Diploma
Though completed from a distance, IUPUI’s program is definitely not independent study. Structured to replicate traditional coursework, online does not mean easy. Expectations are identical to what would be presented in any building on campus, with the only difference being the delivery method.

“The education students receive is Purdue quality,” Christe explains. “It follows a regular academic schedule, with students participating multiple times a week, facilitated by technology. This flexibility allows students to log into the classroom anytime, day or night.”

The majority of classes closely mimic the experience of students on campus. “You have to participate in a lot of discussions and forums, and there’s a lot of interaction with professors and other students,” says Toby Rave, who received his BS degree in electrical engineering technology in August 2005. “Purdue’s definitely not a diploma mill; the online classes were just as challenging, if not more so, than regular classes.”

The sentiment is echoed by James P Cross, Jr, currently in his second year of the BMET program at IUPUI. “The courses are challenging, and Barbara Christe is demanding,” he says. “She expects you to give your best, so there’s no room for slacking.” Cross is also a prime example of how well the distance-learning approach can work. When he completes his associate’s degree, he is looking to relocate outside of Indiana—and will do so without skipping a beat in his education.

“I’m going to start working full time so I can get experience,” he explains. “All the BMET courses are online, so at this point I can complete my degree 100% away from IUPUI.”

Designed for the Working BMET
After completing a comprehensive review of positions and existing career paths for its employees, ARAMARK Healthcare began looking for a way to provide its biomed technicians with more opportunities.

“We saw a gap, because we didn’t have a way for our managers to effectively complete their degree,” says Knapp, who notes that a significant number of ARAMARK Healthcare employees have associate’s degrees or were trained by the military and were eager, yet unable, to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The solution was to partner with IUPUI. “ARAMARK strives to be a place where the best people want to work and this program fits with that corporate goal, by making our company a place where people feel challenged and are being provided opportunities for growth,” Knapp says.

Out of the gate, IUPUI expects most students to be experienced BMETs looking to further their education. To make their transition back to school as seamless as possible, the university provides college credits for prior experience. Proof of certified biomedical engineering technician certification earns the student 43 credits toward the BS degree, and mechanisms are in place to prevent anyone from enduring classes in which the material does not present anything new.

“For people who believe they already have the skills covered in a specific course, we allow people to ‘test out,’ because our goal is not to duplicate what people already know,” Christe says. On an individual basis, students who are able to demonstrate pre-existing subject knowledge by passing the final exam will receive full credit for that course. “This is a wonderful opportunity for people who have a BMET background and are ready to transfer into the junior and senior year of a baccalaureate program.”

None of this excludes students from entering the program without any biomed experience. For many of the first- and second-year courses requiring time in an actual classroom, such as electronics, physics, or computer networking, students can attend classes at an accredited campus in their area. Credits can then be transferred to IUPUI and applied to the bachelor’s degree.

A Primer: Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Engineering Technology from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)

Degree title: bachelor’s of science in technology, with a major in biomedical engineering technology

Issuing institution: Purdue University

Units to complete the degree: The degree requires 41 courses. Specific courses required to satisfy degree requirements can be found online at www.iupui.edu/~bmet/degree/bmetplan.htm.

Time required to complete the degree: Those without previous coursework or industry experience will typically earn their degree within 4 years of full-time study. For individuals with certified biomedical engineering technician certification, or those who are able to “test out” of specific courses, the amount of time varies. Based primarily on how many courses the student completes each year, a degree could be obtained in approximately 3 to 4 years with an average courseload of two courses each semester.

Focus of coursework: Instruction focuses on the support of existing medical equipment in any clinical environment.

Classes of particular interest:
• Technology and Special Patient Populations (Web based). This course prepares BMETs to work with special patient populations, such as neonates, cardiac intensive care patients, and surgical patients, and the equipment used in their care.
• Codes, Regulations, and Patient Safety (Web based). Using case studies, BMETs explore applicable regulations from National Fire Protection Association 99, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, and the Clinical Laboratories Improvement Act, among others, and their regulations governing medical equipment in the clinical environment.
• Current Issues in BMET (Web based). Presented
by nationally recognized experts, this class focuses attention on the pressing issues and growing trends impacting the biomedical community.
• BMET Senior Project. Providing students with real-world experience, the senior project demands extensive individual design and/or evaluation performed in collaboration with faculty and health care team members. Both oral and written presentations are required.

What sets it apart: In addition to being only the second school in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering technology with a clinical focus, the distance-learning program makes the degree available to individuals nationwide.

Many of the classes required for the degree—and all of the BMET-specific classes—are available online. For the classes requiring on-campus study, students can attend an accredited institution in their area, and transfer credits to IUPUI for degree consideration.

Cost: In-state tuition is approximately $170 per credit; out-of-state tuition is $500 per credit. As part of its involvement in the program, ARAMARK employees receive a reduced tuition rate. In general, this amount is covered in full by the company’s tuition-assistance program, which allows ARAMARK staff to attend courses without incurring any expenses.

Next available enrollment deadline: Applications for the fall 2006 semester must be received by June 1, 2006.

Where to go for more information: For complete details, visit the BMET degree information site at www.iupui.edu/~bmet/degree. Information about the university can be found at www.iupui.edu. —DH

Investing in the Future
The changing standards for today’s biomedical professional was a primary catalyst for ARAMARK Healthcare’s interest in the IUPUI program.

“We are finding that more and more clients are insisting on bachelor’s degrees for managers, as the complexity of the environments in which they serve is growing,” Knapp says. “We believe this trend will continue and that managers without a degree will see dwindling opportunities for career growth.”

To this end, the IUPUI program focuses on a systems approach. As any experienced BMET will attest, gone are the days of isolated equipment and component-level troubleshooting. In today’s networked, interconnected hospitals, the impact of one failed device has the potential to resonate throughout the entire facility. The degree requirements include ample helpings of analytical thinking and problem-solving exercises. This broad-based curriculum was no accident. Beyond the academics, Christe hopes to arm graduates with more than the technical basics.

“I’d like to show them new opportunities for collaboration with other BMETs in the field—sharing ‘lessons learned’ both in the classroom and on the job,” she says. “IUPUI coursework focuses student skills on more sophisticated, interconnected systems, with emphasis on the understanding of contemporary tools to solve complex problems.”

The goal has been accomplished according to Rave, who believes the program provides graduates with the tools required in the real world, especially for those considering management.

“You’re taking care of the technical aspect, such as electronics and physics,” he says. “But the last 2 years cover the managerial skills you need, like writing reports, making presentations, and ethical considerations.”

The hope of both Christe and Knapp is that a 4-year degree in biomedical engineering technology will invite more talent into the field while simultaneously opening the doors to career growth for those who already enjoy it.

“Providing a program with clear technical, leadership, and management components is crucial. This integrated approach prepares a person to manage a biomedical department in which leaders are required to function effectively wearing many hats, including people leadership, technical expertise, and business acumen,” Knapp says. “It opens a wider array of options for individuals looking to advance their careers.”

Looking Forward
Christe believes the program, sure to evolve and improve over time, will not only help experienced professionals meet the demands for a 4-year degree, but will foster a growing interest in the support of health care technology as a profession.

“My hope is the publicity will increase the visibility of the career field and it will reach a point where students select it,” Christe says. “I’d like to see 18-year-old students come to IUPUI to study because they want to be a BMET.”

ARAMARK has similar ambitions for the program and, according to Knapp, the company is on board for the long haul.

“We’re committed to the biomedical industry and to the professionals who serve in it every day,” he says. “At the end of the day, helping our employees develop personally and professionally, feel good about what they do, and feel excited to go to work each day is what we strive for.”

Dana Hinesly is a contributing writer for 24×7.