I Taught Senior Citizens How To Control Robotics Using Their Minds: A Teaching and Learning Experience with OLLI

 July 10, 2019

After stumbling across a description of OLLI in a Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) email, I learned that the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), part of the Continuing Studies program at Duke University, is a community of advanced-age learners. Older adults from the Raleigh-Durham area both teach classes and attend courses in the OLLI House on Duke’s East Campus. I reached out to the OLLI curriculum director for Science and Technology. When I pitched my crazy idea to teach a Biomedical Engineering course with no pre-requisites required, he was ecstatic. We worked together on a course description, with me providing key course details and with him providing references to older movies as a “hook” for the advanced-age audience.

Designing a Course from Scratch!


Student in OLLI Biomedical Engineering class
While I had been a teaching assistant for biomedical engineering courses several times before, I had never put together a course. Putting together a course—even a 6-week OLLI course—was much more challenging than I originally thought it would be!

I knew that I wanted to build a hands-on course. Unfortunately, electronic kits are expensive, and I had a very limited budget. As an undergraduate, I had taken a course that featured many exciting biomedical electronic labs, so I reached out to the professor of that course, Dr. Alper Bozkurt at NC State University. Dr. Bozkurt generously let me borrow his biomedical electronic lab kits for the OLLI course, and Peter Sotory, one of his graduate students and teaching assistants, was more than willing to offer help and advice for the laboratory component.

I spent many hours designing lectures and testing labs on my husband. I went through many iterations of the labs before deciding on the exact way to present them. It was an exciting process to put together all of the components into a complete course!

Learning by Teaching


Student in OLLI Biomedical Engineering class
I was fairly nervous to teach the course and was even more anxious when we did introductions on the first day. I had naïvely expected that I would be the expert in the room on biomedical engineering. However, the room was filled with retired physicians, dentists, chemists, computer scientists, and even a retired chair of Biomedical Engineering! While intimidating, it made the class discussion incredibly lively. From the first few minutes of class, I was more challenged as a teacher than I had ever been before. The inquiries they brought forth made me consider new ideas and perspectives.

We discussed a range of topics loosely broken into biomechanics, bioelectricity, optics (light) and the body, and biomaterials. Each lecture was broken into introductory/background material, current standards of practice, and research/future developments. Our discussion of future developments often extended the class due to the students’ overwhelming enthusiasm.

Because I had designed the course with no pre-requisites required, I had several students without any background knowledge. I believe that these students actually got the most out of the course because they were able to develop a completely new knowledge base from which to draw conclusions about biomedical engineering and their own health and wellness. With an advanced-age audience, I thought it especially imperative to discuss all aspects of the current research since many of the students may be volunteers in future studies for these technologies in development.

Probably the most challenging aspect of the course was implementing the highly technical labs, since after all, these labs were used in a graduate-level engineering course. The key components that made the labs a success was the organization of all components, the detailed instructions, and the use of partners. The class was able to view their EMG (muscle activity) on their phones, analyze their own EKG (heart electrical activity) signal, control their partner’s arm using their own muscle activity, and use their own arm muscle activity to control a prosthetic claw. Students were delighted with the labs and many wanted to dive even deeper into the technologies behind them. Our labs were even featured on the Backyard Brains education blog!


Student in OLLI Biomedical Engineering class
Perhaps the most rewarding parts of the journey, however, were the incredible affirmations I received from the students during and after the class. The support and constructive criticism they provided has made me a better and more self-reflective teacher.

As a result of the constructive criticism, I implemented better time management strategies and improved upon the post-lab discussions. My pedagogical strategies and confidence as an instructor improved significantly as a result of designing and teaching the OLLI course.


My involvement with OLLI reinvigorated my passion for teaching. It is so refreshing to teach a course where every single participant is actively engaged and truly wants to be there. I highly encourage current graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to consider teaching a course at OLLI. Not only can you learn the logistics involved in setting up a course, but you can also make an important impact on a community of lifelong learners.

To teach your own course at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, visit the OLLI website or contact Duke OLLI at 919-684-6259 or


Brinnae Bent
Brinnae Bent

Ph.D. candidate, Biomedical Engineering

Brinnae Bent is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. She works in the BIG IDEAS Lab under Jessilyn Dunn studying the implementation of wearable device data for chronic disease management. She has a passion for STEM education and mentoring. Find out more on her professional website and follow her on Twitter @RunsData.