Empathy in design: Learning human factors for biomedical devices

Miranda Buckheit
May 03, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While working in the medical devices industry as a biomedical engineer, Michelle Hatch began shopping for graduate programs that she could complete in her spare time. She sought something close to home or online that would advance her skills and complement her interests in engineering.

During her search, she landed on a page from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, which listed programs that they endorse as being high quality. A specific listing piqued her interest: the graduate certificate in human factors engineering and ergonomics offered online by the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering through Penn State World Campus.

Taught by the same Penn State faculty who teach residential courses, the graduate certificate program is designed to help students progress their careers, add a competitive edge when seeking a job or build specific knowledge for a student pursuing a degree.

Hatch, a 2014 Texas A&M University biomedical engineering alumna, began seeking further training when the Food and Drug Administration reclassified the lab equipment devices her company worked on to medical devices. Medical devices, as opposed to laboratory equipment, require documented consideration of human factors, or how people use the devices.

"I didn't want to stop working to go back to school, so online programs were attractive, but finding a certificate in human factors was rare," Hatch said. "When I found the Penn State degree, I knew I had to apply."

Since earning her certificate in 2017, Hatch became the first engineer with human factors training within her company. She explained that the certificate gave her the foundation to apply human factors principles to her work because her courses were centered on human design and the physical and cognitive limitations of humans.

"You can't design a functional device without thinking of the end-user," Hatch said. "My background in device engineering helped me to understand the technical side."

Hatch is now pursuing her master of engineering (M.Eng.) in industrial engineering with a concentration in human factors via the World Campus.

"I did three courses for my certificate and three for my M.Eng. so far," Hatch said. "I can take courses slowly and steadily and apply them to my work. I'm glad that my company supports my education because I didn't want to stop my job to go back and do a master's degree. Online education is a great way to keep on learning and apply it in the real world."

She explained that the M.Eng. program also helps her with her professional skills.

"This program has helped me think about engineering across cultures," Hatch said. "I am looking at different personality types and how to approach people with information. These skills are important at work because you collaborate across teams, and sometimes you have to persuade people to think of a user's point of view. A designer may think something is obvious because they made it, but it may not be to the user."

Hatch said that the certificate helped her mold her career to be better suited to her personality: she is empathetic with the end-user in design, applying those considerations to develop a better product.

Starting with the certificate was ideal for Hatch, who said she found it daunting to try to plan her career without having a deeper understanding of the human factors field.

"It was daunting to try to plan out what my whole career was going to look like," Hatch said. "With the graduate certificate program, I got a little taste of the human factors field. I enjoyed learning that, so I wanted to dive deeper with the master's degree. You can take things a step at a time, and you can still follow your interests."

Not only did the certificate give Hatch an introduction to her chosen discipline, it also introduced her to Penn State World Campus.

"I would have been unsure of applying to the master's without my certificate," Hatch said. "I knew Penn State World Campus when the M.Eng. launched, which made me have confidence that the master's program would have high-quality online courses. I was right."

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about graduate engineering programs.

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Last Updated June 14, 2021