Staying true to its roots: Supporting cross-disciplinary and hands-on learning in UHP via the BioDesign Challenge

The 2019 BioDesign team presents their research at the BioDesign Challenge. in New York From left to right: Nealah Lee, Nadiah Mohammed, Sabah Khan, and Elisa Morillo.
The 2019 BioDesign team presents their research at the BioDesign Challenge in New York. From left to right: Nealah Lee, Nadiah Mohammed, Sabah Khan, and Elisa Morillo.

by David Furlow, UHP Director

In Fall of 2017, Professors Christina Cogdell, Chair of the Design Department, and Marc Facciotti of the Biomedical Engineering Department contacted me with an idea: is there a way to develop a course series on BioDesign via UHP to select and prepare a team to represent UC Davis in the international BioDesign competition held each June in New York City?

The two quarter class would bring students from many disciplines together to use biological materials and tools of modern biological research to create original sustainable products, built on extensive research and market outreach, along with collaboration across campus research and design labs. Generously, the faculty offered to donate the research funds that come along with teaching a UHP course in addition to their normal teaching loads in order to fully fund the resources needed for the course and to take the winning team to New York for the competition at the Parsons School of Design and the Museum of Modern Art.

Indeed, one of the strengths of UHP is the flexibility and campus investment to develop exciting new courses for students, and we successfully launched the first offering last year. The 2018 version resulted in a UC Davis team that won second place in the international competition overall and first place in the science portion, certainly an unprecedented level of success for a first time entrant. Their sustainable design of a new diaper (Sorbit) was anchored by the discovery of a new absorbant material (aerogel) derived from bacterial cellulose (BC, more commonly known as a major byproduct of Kombucha production). The team is also attracting investments as a start-up, sponsored by the Venture Well Foundation, among other interested parties.

I was fortunate to co-teach the course series with Christina this past academic year, with Marc continuing to serve in an advisory role, and again offering his TEAM innovation lab as the venue for the lab portions of the course.

The UHP students in the class represented majors from Biological Systems Engineering, Computer Science, Microbiology, Genetics, Biological Sciences, Sustainable Agriculture, and Design.

The teams created new BC based milk cartons, bandages, and feminine hygiene products, mushroom mycelium based airline seats, BC and soy protein based hospital gowns, and a convenient nanobody based environmental contaminant detector.

At the end of the course, the teams presented their ideas and prototypes to a distinguished panel of venture capitalists, industry representatives, UC Davis administrators and faculty. The judges were incredibly impressed by the maturity of the proposals and the prototypes, and had a difficult time picking the winning team. Check out a summary of each UC Davis team.

In the end, the BioBandage team garnered the most overall support from our internal competition and we intensively prepped and accompanied them to NYC for the competition. The team did a wonderful job in front of about 300+ BioDesign professionals, educators, fellow competing student teams, and the public, both in their formal presentation during the day and the gallery show in the evening. While the BioBandage team didn’t place this year in the face of ever increasingly tough competition, Johnson and Johnson (who you will recognize as a major producer of “bandaids”) invited them to submit their design to an internal competition for sustainable products, and I was also happy to join the team for ongoing discussions with a start-up accelerator group of VCs in the UK as well.

The experience was an incredible opportunity for the students in the class to research, design and create novel products intended to work towards a more sustainable future, built on the expertise and perspectives of diverse teams of our talented undergraduates. Professors Facciotti, Cogdell, and I all agreed this was the most rewarding teaching experience we’ve had here, and the students were equally grateful for the opportunity for deep learning about sustainable and culturally competent design, emerging tools of synthetic biology applied to sustainability, and project management principles throughout the course.

The 2019 BioDesign team gallery. From left to right: Elisa Morillo, Nadiah Mohammed, Nealah Lee, and Sabah Khan.
The 2019 BioDesign team gallery. From left to right: Elisa Morillo, Nadiah Mohammed, Nealah Lee, and Sabah Khan.

Recently, the course was recognized nationally by design professionals through a prestigious annual awards competition sponsored by Core77. The UC Davis course won runner up from the judges and first place from the larger design community in the Design Education Initiative category . The write-up includes more information by Christina about the history and goals of the course.

The BioDesign competition course is but one way UHP continues to develop unique cross-disciplinary learning experiences for our students that impacts the campus at large.

UHP will also host the campus SHAPE initiative to bring science, humanities, and arts faculty together. 

The grant funding will support performing artists and courses on societal issues that require multiple perspectives and approaches to solve. I was pleased to co-develop the proposal for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and serve as a co-investigator, as well as a member of the steering committee.

Lastly, UHP has spearheaded the development of new courses in Bioethics, Digital Humanities and many more, bringing together talented students and faculty from majors across campus – all in keeping with the rich history of the program dating back to its founding 50 years ago as Integrated Studies. Truly, one can’t find more integrated learning opportunities than we experienced with our students in these courses that, arguably, only UHP can pull together for the campus at large.