Lesson: Detecting Breast Cancer

Contributed by: VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University

A photograph of a cart with a color monitor on top and a platform of dials and buttons above an interior cavity with computer equipment and wires.
Learn the potentials of ultrasound.
Copyright © 2006 Drickey, Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AlokaPhoto2006a.jpg


Students are introduced to the unit challenge: To develop a painless means of identifying cancerous tumors. Solving the challenge depends on an understanding of the properties of stress and strain. After learning the challenge question, students generate ideas and consider the knowledge required to solve the challenge. Then they read an expert's opinion on ultrasound imaging and the potentials for detecting cancerous tumors. This interview helps to direct student research and learning towards finding a solution.

Engineering Connection

Through years of developing medical imaging, engineers and scientists have gained the ability to control and manipulate potentially lethal radiation in order to produce meaningful, lifesaving images. As students are presented with the challenge of designing a means of painlessly detecting breast cancer, they consider the potential hazards of the imaging techniques. In light of this consideration, students must think not just as biomedical engineers, but even further, like safety engineers as well. In the post lesson assessment questions 2-6, students consider the potential advantages and hazards of ultrasound imaging as suggested in the expert interview.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Explain the challenge problem.
  • List information that might be needed to answer the problem.
  • Group together similar areas of knowledge needed to address the challenge.


Exactly what is an x-ray? Have you ever heard of a CT scan? Or how about an ultrasound? What about a mammogram? Today we have been assigned an engineering challenge and it is our task to devise a plan of attack, identify what we need to know to solve the challenge and begin solving the challenge. So let's get started.

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women (Papas, 253). The American Cancer Society states that mammography is the best early-detection tool available. It is able to detect cancer before – sometimes years before – physical symptoms are present (American Cancer Society, 13). It is recommend that women at or older than 40 have a mammogram annually (ACS, 13). Despite the fact that mammograms are the most effective early-detector of breast cancer, many women choose not to have them. Of all American women at or over the age of 40, only 54.9% have had a mammogram within the past year (ACS, 15).

One reason that women may not get an annual mammogram is pain. Mammography is quite painful for some women. In a summary of studies, between 0.2% and 62% of women reported some pain related to mammography. If the qualifier was changed from "pain" to "discomfort," 90% of women answered that they had experienced this (Papas, 254). Other forms of early-detection exist—breast-self exam (BSE) and clinical breast-exams (CBE)—but these are not as effective as mammography.

Is there a way to detect the presence of tumors that is not as painful as mammography but more reliable and quantifiable than a BSE or CBE?

Over the next week or so of classes, we will work through solving this engineering challenge. This type of challenge-based learning may be new to us but it will be exciting and very fun. We begin our learning by Generating Ideas, considering what we already know and what we need to learn in order to solve the challenge. Then we hear Multiple Perspectives from professionals specializing in medical imaging. Hearing the thoughts of professionals helps us adapt our initial thoughts! Then, we begin the Research and Revise phase in which we learn the fundamental concepts of Hooke's law and stress and strain, which are essential to our solution. We will have a short quiz to assess our learning, constituting the Test your Mettle step of this learning cycle. Finally, instead of a unit test we will Go Public with our engineering solution by creating an informational brochure! Now that we know what lies ahead, let's get started!

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Legacy Cycle Information

This lesson covers the Challenge, Generates Ideas and Multiple Perspectives phases of the legacy cycle. After being introduced to the challenge question, have students begin to brainstorm ideas and organize the information they deem necessary to solve the challenge. This constitutes the Generate Ideas phase of the cycle. After which, students are introduced to the input of a professional in order to help guide their learning, also known as the Multiple Perspectives phase. An extension to this phase might be a biomedical imaging presentation by a local professor of biomedical engineering. In the next lesson, students begin the Research and Revise phase in which they acquire an understanding of stress and strain, as needed to solve the challenge question.

Lecture Information

Begin by introducing students briefly to the legacy cycle and the way in which they will learn the concepts of stress and strain as described in the introduction. This help students understand why they are going through each phase of the cycle.

Next, complete the associated activity. Read the challenge question aloud to the class. Begin with students working alone to record their personal thoughts and ideas by answering the generate ideas question on the handout. After an adequate amount of time, generate a class list on the board of concepts that must be considered in order to solve the challenge question. Next ask students to generate a list of knowledge areas and categorize the concepts they have listed into these knowledge areas. Work with students until they begin discussing various imaging techniques such as x-ray, MRI, CT, ultrasound, etc. Lead students toward discussing the fundamental functions of these imaging techniques; for example, x-ray images depict tissue density and PET scans depict cellular metabolism.

After ideas have been generated, pass out to each student an Ask the Expert Handout—a five question/answer interview with Dr. Michael Miga, professor of biomedical engineering. Read the handout aloud as a class. Afterwards, permit students to alter the ideas on the board, adding to the concepts they expect to learn in order to solve the challenge.

Associated Activities



Post-Lesson Assessment:

Journal Questions: As a writing assignment, ask students to answer the following questions.

  • What do you know about stress and strain? What do these terms refer to? Do you know of a relationship between the two concepts?
  • What do you know about ultrasound imaging? What are other uses for this technology, besides prenatal ultrasound?
  • How does ultrasound imaging produce images?
  • What exactly is being depicted in an ultrasound?
  • What are other ways to depict what an ultrasound shows in its images?
  • What are safety concerns related to using an ultrasound?


Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group,LLC. Accessed December 28, 2008. (Source of vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation) http://www.dictionary.com
American Cancer Society. (2005) Breast Cancer Facts and Figures 2005-2006. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, Inc.
Papas, Mia A., Klassen Ann C. (2005) Pain and Discomfort Associated with Mammography Among Urban Low-Income African-American Women [Electronic version]. Journal of Community Health, 30, 253 – 267.


Luke Diamond ; Meghan Murphy


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2007 Vanderbilt University

Supporting Program

VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under National Science Foundation RET grant nos. 0338092 and 0742871. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.