When officials at the UAB School of Engineering launched a new Peer Tutoring Lab in late 2019, they had no idea how critical such services would soon become.

virtual tutorThe service was established prior to the spring 2020 semester as an in-person tutoring facility in the Education-Engineering Complex. Funded by a grant from Alabama Power, the lab employed several highly qualified students to tutor their classmates in a variety of engineering-related subjects with the goal of increasing retention of freshman and sophomore students.

When the university abruptly switched to remote learning mid-semester because of the COVID 19 pandemic, professors and students alike had to adjust to the changed format.

Luckily lab director Gregory Myers says that his team of engineering tutors proved surprisingly adept at remote instruction. “I would say that in some ways, it has been an improvement over the face-to-face tutoring we were doing in the spring,” he explained. “Our number of tutoring sessions went up, and our tutors not only fulfilled their tutoring obligations, they excelled.”

Having proved its worth during that time of transition, the tutoring lab became a mainstay for undergraduates during the fall semester, and it is considered a key piece of the dean’s retention strategy. “Engineering is about solving problems, and talking through problems and solutions with your peers, an instructor, or a tutor is an essential part of the learning process,” said engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., who arrived at UAB on July 1. “I’ve seen firsthand how one-on-one tutoring helps our students, and it is a great example of how industry partners like Alabama Power are helping us ensure that all our students have the support they need to succeed, particularly during COVID when studying with classmates can be more difficult.”

Highly Qualified Tutors

The dean’s confidence in the tutoring lab is more than just lip-service, and much more than just a statement of ideals. Shortly after he arrived at UAB, Holmes asked Dr. Myers if he could volunteer as a tutor alongside the students; his shift is on Monday afternoons.

Freshman engineering student Lauryn Johnson uses the Engineering Peer Tutoring Lab and other academic support services across campus. When her first test came back with a failing grade, she says she knew she needed to seek out help.

“I dropped in on a Monday, and Dr. Holmes helped me understand some of the concepts I was struggling with,” said Johnson. “I met with him a couple of times after that, and on my next test, I got a 98. So, I was able to improve my grade significantly, but I had no idea he was the dean until my advisor told me.”

Although every tutoring session doesn’t mean a private session with an M.D./Ph.D., Myers says he is proud of the work the student tutors do to help their classmates. “We certainly try to identify highly capable students to work as tutors, but it might not always be the top students who make the best tutors,” Myers said. “Just as important to me is that the tutor be able to empathize and be patient with the person seeking help. In some situations, the tutors may still be figuring things out themselves, but if that tutor is passionate about the subject matter and is willing to give something back, that’s an ideal situation. And we still have faculty and TAs who can support them when they need it.”

That helpful spirit—and the impact it is having on her academic performance—is what Johnson says keeps her coming back. “I have worked with a variety of tutors, and I’ve never had anyone who got impatient or acted like I should already know something,” she said. “There have been times when I had more than one tutor online trying to help me work through a problem.”

And even though hybrid learning has been effective in many respects, she says the tutoring services at UAB are a key piece to help her bridge the gap created by Zoom lectures. “I think it’s more important than ever to have services like this because of the environment we’re in,” she said. “It’s really hard to not be able to relate to a professor face-to-face in class, to not be able to ask questions in a natural way. If I wasn’t able to drop in to the engineering tutoring lab, I don’t know where I would be right now.”

According to Myers, some of the secrets to the Tutoring Lab’s success lie in the format. The convenience of dropping in remotely, combined with the tutors’ technological skills with the whiteboard and other Zoom features, proved to be unexpected advantages last spring that have continued this fall. “It has worked so well that even when things return to normal, I suspect we’ll still want to retain some aspects of online tutoring,” Myers said.

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BioHorizons is a Birmingham company whose history is rooted in UAB. Today, thanks to a growing and successful co-op program, it appears that BioHorizons and UAB will continue to be linked far into the future.

The dental-implant company, which started as a spinoff of research from the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry, has hired more than a dozen UAB alumni and students over the past 28 years. More recently, though, its co-op program has begun to bring in current engineering undergraduates—creating a talent pipeline for students to get a head start in a growing industry.

“Hands-on experience has always been a key element of engineering education,” said Neil Adams, director of the Engineering Career Center. “The success of our program depends on strong co-op and intern partners, like BioHorizons, who offer quality experiences to our students so that they apply their engineering knowledge while also learning how to be a contributing part of a professional organization. We are proud of this continued partnership and look forward to supporting Blazer engineering co-ops at BioHorizons for many years to come.”

A Blazer Legacy

BioHorizons was started in 1995 by the late Martha Bidez, Ph.D., then a faculty member in the School of Engineering who would serve as the company’s first CEO before selling the company and returning to UAB in 2009. Over the years, the company has hired a number of UAB alumni, including several members of its leadership team (see sidebar).

In 2016, however, the company’s ties to UAB got a little closer when Ashley Boggs became the first UAB undergraduate to join the BioHorizons co-op program—a program that provides students the opportunity to work full-time at the company for three semesters, alternating with school. The experience is paid, and students work alongside engineers throughout their time at the company.

Boggs extended her co-op by working part-time at the company until she was hired full time after she graduated in 2018. Today, she is a Digital Dentistry Engineering Manager, and she credits her co-op experience for opening her eyes to possibilities she had never previously considered.

“I had a vague idea that I wanted to work with implants—like hips, knees, ankles—but I didn’t know anything about the dental-implant industry at all,” said Boggs. “During my sophomore year, I went to the Engineering Career Center and told them that I couldn’t keep sitting in class doing problems from a book. They told me about a local company called BioHorizons that was doing on-campus interviews.”

The interview changed Boggs’s personal career trajectory, but her story is not an unusual one. While the engineering curriculum prepares students for a wide variety of careers, it’s often that first on-the-job experience that opens eyes and doors to career opportunities in fields students may have never been aware of.

That was the case for UAB graduate Jonathan Gordon, another former co-op participant who now works as a packaging engineer for BioHorizons. “I started out on a pre-med track, but coming from a very small town to UAB was a big transition,” Gordon said. “I dropped the pre-med route pretty quickly and started looking for other options.”

Like Boggs, the Engineering Career Center helped connect Gordon with a co-op position at BioHorizons, and that, in turn, led to full-time employment. “I realized pretty quickly that I love this industry. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”

An Undergraduate Pipeline

Although Boggs was the first UAB student hired into BioHorizons' co-op program, she soon had company. Three other Blazers followed her into the program (Josh Moore, Karly Casey and Gordon), and all four stayed on to work full-time. That kind of retention is notable for an undergraduate experience that by its nature is often exploratory. 

“Since we started the co-op program about 10 years ago, we have had about 17-18 engineering students in our program—two of which have been in our regulatory department and the rest in research and development,” said Tom Lewis, BioHorizons manager of product engineering. “We feel that it has been very successful, and to date we have hired five as full-time employees.”

That transition from co-op to full-time employee makes sense when you consider the investment BioHorizons makes in students over a three-semester co-op. Each student must learn Quality System processes before getting down to work with tasks, such as design control, drawing release, and CAD modeling. “Each student is trained, but it takes hands-on involvement to learn all of these processes,” Lewis said. “It’s also helpful for students to experience how different departments work together for a common goal.”

In addition, students must learn industry standards and technologies in the medical device industry. “This takes longer,” Lewis said, “but over time they begin to understand the ‘whys’ behind the design of dental implants, restorative components and instruments. Although we have the expectation that co-ops produce for us, my hope is that when they look back they realize the value of their experience here, and as they move into their careers they have a head start in their understanding of engineering organizations."

“Co-op is both an investment by the company and a commitment by the student,” added Adams. “The depth of experience pays dividends in that co-op students are ready to contribute immediately at an organization after graduation.”


“I have been part of teams in which we have drawn and developed state of the art dental surgery kits that are slated to hit the market this year; I have managed drafting and conducting test plans to research the durability of implant designs; and, most importantly, I have been able to teach incoming co-ops the ins and outs of the company and guide them as they grow from a college student into true engineers.”
—Benjamin Pody, mechanical engineering student and 2nd-year co-op


Homegrown Talent

Lewis says the co-op program historically has drawn from several area universities, but he admits UAB students have one obvious advantage. “Since they are local, they already have living arrangements,” he said. “After completing the three co-op terms, students return to school to finish up and graduate.  With UAB being in town, when the opportunity was available several UAB students have stayed on and worked part-time until graduation.  The company knowledge they have has allowed them to be productive even on a part-time basis.”

While the growth of BioHorizons’ co-op program is exciting for current and future engineering students, UAB School of Engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., says that is just one of the reasons UAB engineers should look at the BioHorizons story with pride.

“It’s not unusual for a promising startup to spin off from university research—in this case, arising from research in the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry,” said Holmes. “We often comment that these startups have the potential to revolutionize an industry. But in the case of BioHorizons, it has actually done that, and it continues to innovate and to grow. I am tremendously excited that our students are able to be a part of that continuing UAB success story.”

“At BioHorizons, we look forward to continuing our work with UAB in the future,” agreed Lewis. “We appreciate the relationship we have developed with the university that has served us well over the years.”


BioHorizons Senior Leadership

A glance at the BioHorizons team shows a number of UAB graduates among the senior leadership.

R. Steve Boggan, President and CEO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

J. Todd Strong, Executive VP and COO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Mike Mills, Executive VP and CFO

  •   B.S. from UAB Collat School of Business

Andrew Baroody, VP of Sales Operations

  •   B.A. in English from UAB

Juan Jaramillo, VP of Global Business Support

  •   UAB Graduate

Fred J. Molz, IV, VP of Research and Development

  •   M.S. and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Elbert Jenkins II, VP of Information Technology

  •   MEng in Information Engineering Management from UAB
  •   MBA from the UAB Collat School of Business

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