McMaster University:

Increasing Enrollment by Re-Engineering Biomedical Education.

McMaster University Case Study The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada has a unique undergraduate program that combines seemingly disparate studies: Electrical and Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Shahin Sirouspour, an Associate Professor in the department, became deeply interested in medical robotics after joining McMaster in 2003. He noticed the need for engineers who understand medical sciences. Or maybe it was a need for medical practitioners who understand engineering? The lines were blurring. Either way, technology was playing an increasingly important role in the delivery of healthcare services.

So in 2006, under Dr. Sirouspour’s direction, the program introduced a groundbreaking course in Medical Robotics. Utterly unique, this course provided undergraduate students hands-on access to functioning medical robots in their labs. One problem: industrial robots are too bulky, expensive and unsafe to allow undergrads near them. Or at least, that’s what some believed.

“We realized there was nothing in medical robotics, and especially for the undergrad level that we could go directly and buy.” However, for his research, Dr. Sirouspour had a working relationship with the innovative engineers at Quanser. He was convinced they were the right people to create custom devices for his lab. Quanser “always gives us the flexibility of going and talking to them. We have some ideas and they have their own ideas and so we have this ability to collaborate and cooperate and always come up with something that is useful for the students.” Together Dr. Sirouspour and several leading Quanser engineers traded ideas and co-invented a unique lab for this unique course.

Using existing Quanser software and hardware components, new medical robotics experiments were made accessible for undergrads. “QPA, the power amplifier and the data acquisition boards, they were already there,” Dr. Sirouspour matter-of-factly explains. “The hardware was actually a modification of an existing device - the twin pantograph to a single pantograph and we had to add some other extra components to it. So it was some customization of the hardware and the robot itself.” Still, with the existing devices and goodwill between partners, what many thought was prohibitively expensive became eminently doable.

Speaking of willing partners, Quanser helped compose the curriculum for the experiments –a service they provide their college and university clients around the world. When they first learned of McMaster’s Medical Robotics course, the engineers at Quanser were eager to be involved. Like many teaching and researching professors, Dr. Sirouspour likes the idea of purchasing experiments that come with curriculum. “It can save a lot of time for somebody who is developing a new course.”

Most academics agree that hands-on learning is among the best ways to teach – especially with today’s tech-savvy generation. Thanks to the excitement these customized robots create, there’s no shortage of students applying to take Dr. Sirouspour’s course. Consequently, he can be very picky.

The course offers a variety of directions. “Students are very interested in robotics systems and if you have the opportunity to give them some exposure to those types of systems through an undergraduate course, that would help them make decisions for their future,” says Dr. Sirouspour, “whether they are going to a graduate course or industry.”

They come from several disciplines and can go onto many others. It’s “one of the very first undergraduate programs in Canada where students actually get into a combination of electrical engineering and biomedical engineering,” says Dr. Sirouspour. Students “with this degree (would) be able to go to medical school if they want. Obviously they can also go to graduate studies in electrical and biomedical engineering.” The range of opportunity is “not just limited to medical applications. The course has a broader audience. It introduces the students to the state-of-the-art robotics and real-time control systems and gives them a very good sense of what happens in reality, when you take some theoretical concepts and try to apply them to real-life problems.” This confluence of directions supports Quanser’s belief that control is fundamental for any area of engineering. And that Quanser is the right partner for captivating, motivating and graduating young minds.


Dr. Shahin Sirouspour is an Associate Professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the McMaster University. His research interests include areas of haptics, telerobotics and medical robotics with application of advanced control for time-delay teleoperation, design and control of haptic interfaces cooperative haptics and teleoperation systems, robotic-assisted surgery/telesurgery, and high performance parallel computing for real-time simulation of soft-tissue deformation. In 2008 Dr. Sirouspour has received the McMaster President’s Award of Excellence in Graduate Supervision.

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