Comparing Biomedical Engineering Programs

Choosing a Biomedical Engineering (BME) program is a bit more complicated than many other programs, like chemical or mechanical, because there is actually quite a variety among them.  The following is my impression of the various types of BME programs.

First, what should a Biomedical Engineering (BME) program look like academically?  Here is a reasonable definition given by ABET, the U.S. “Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology“:

The program must prepare graduates to have: an understanding of biology and physiology, and the capability to apply advanced mathematics (including differential equations and statistics), science, and engineering to solve the problems at the interface of engineering and biology; the curriculum must prepare graduates with the ability to make measurements on and interpret data from living systems, addressing the problems associated with the interaction between living and non-living materials and systems.

(The Canadian equivalent of ABET, CEAB, doesn’t publish any definitions but our expectations would be similar anyways.)

Within that framework, there are actually several different “flavours” of BME, and for potential applicants it is very important that you recognize and understand this.  Otherwise, you might end up in a program that is completely different from what you might have had in mind.  Here, I will attempt to summarize my understanding of the different “flavours”, with some example programs in Canadian universities.

  1.  The “Electrical” Flavour:  in this flavour, much of the emphasis is on signals and instrumentation, including imaging.  Think of pulse oximeters, EKG devices, CT scanners, MRI, and various electrical/computer applications.  If you’re looking at a BME program which is housed within an Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, it is likely going to be this flavour.  Examples include Ryerson’s Biomedical Engineering program, McMaster’s Electrical & Bioengineering program, and Carleton’s Biomedical & Electrical program.  Looking at their curriculum, the Biomedical programs at Guelph, UBC, Victoria, and SFU also seem to be weighted towards this Electrical flavour, in my opinion (although it may depend on elective choices).
  2. The “Mechanical” Flavour:  here the emphasis leans more towards biomechanics and biocompatible materials.  Think of assistive devices, prosthetics, implantable joints, artificial hearts.  Obviously if a program is housed in a Mechanical Engineering Department, it is likely this flavour.  Examples include Carleton’s Biomedical & Mechanical program, Ottawa’s Biomedical Mechanical program, and Victoria’s Biomedical program.  The curriculum at UBC and SFU can also lean in this direction, depending on elective choices.
  3. The “Chemical” Flavour:  this has more emphasis on biomolecular aspects.  Think tissue engineering, targeted pharmaceutical delivery, biomolecule detection for diagnostics, biocompatible materials.  This flavour seems to be somewhat less common in Canada, but examples include McMaster’s Chemical & Bioengineering program (which requires a fifth academic year).

Other observations:

  • Toronto’s Engineering Science program has a Biomedical Systems Engineering major starting in 3rd year.  Depending on which elective courses you pick, it looks like it could cover any of the three “flavours”.
  • Waterloo’s Biomedical Engineering program has three possible focus or theme areas:  Biomedical Signals (an electrical flavour), Biomechanics (a mechanical flavour), and Biomedical Devices (a hybrid of electrical, mechanical and chemical flavours).  Since the program was designed and will be delivered by faculty from electrical, mechanical, chemical, and systems design engineering (and others from science and applied health studies), it should have a very good mix and coverage across all three “flavours”.
  • As far as I can tell, most biomedical engineering programs at other universities don’t have any specialized biomedical courses until 2nd or 3rd year.  At some universities, the biomedical part is an “option” or add-on elective package with another degree, for example at the universities of Calgary and Alberta.  Waterloo’s is specialized from the start of first year, with all courses  designed specifically for biomedical applications.  For example, the first term includes BME 161 “Introduction to Biomedical Design” and BME 101 “Introduction to Biomedical Engineering”.  (This is typical for all of our engineering programs.  With mandatory co-op starting in first year, students need to get into some key topics right away.)
  • In Ontario, Carleton, Guelph, Ottawa, Ryerson, and Waterloo have direct-entry Biomedical Engineering programs.  In other universities you either select an option package in upper years, or compete for a spot after 1st year engineering.

So that’s my overview of biomedical engineering programs in Canada.  Lots of choice which is good, but it can be confusing too.  So it is worthwhile to spend some time looking at the various programs in detail before making a choice that fits your goals and interests.

22 thoughts on “Comparing Biomedical Engineering Programs

  1. Fascinating comparison. I would like to think that Waterloo’s BME also has an emphasis on design, perhaps giving it a “design flavour,” since a large portion of the BME curriculum was derived from the SYDE curriculum and has multiple design courses focused on Biomedical applications.

    • Yes, very good point! Systems Design led the program development, so there is definitely a strong emphasis on design (open-ended problem solving, multi-faceted problems, hands-on application of theory) throughout the curriculum. The program ends with a series of design workshops, similar to those in Systems Design. I’m looking forward to seeing what our students invent in those workshops.

  2. This is not a question concerning this topic, but Admissions. I would place my question there, but I’m not sure if you would see it there, since that post was posted a while back. Can I get admitted to Waterloo, if I don’t have work experience at the moment, though I have 90+ hours of volunteering? I would like your thoughts

    • That’s OK, but I can see new comments on any old post. Work experience is good, but not required. So yes, you could certainly get admitted without work experience. Many admitted students don’t have much or any work experience.

  3. Do you believe that this program has general enough job opportunities, or that the job prospects are good in this area? I’ve been interested in SYDE for a while now because of how general it is, but I do also like the biological and chemical aspects of BME. I would however be a little worried that going through this program might limit me in ways that wouldn’t happen if I choose SYDE, so I want to make sure that I wouldn’t be stuck in a corner

    • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites Biomed Eng as one of the fastest growing occupations. SYDE is nice for its flexibility though, and it does provide a way to go off in a completely different direction if you discover a new interest in the first couple of years. I don’t think our Biomed program will be too limiting though. It has a nice mix of mechanical, electrical and some chem/bio content and flexibility.

  4. I’m currently in my senior high school year and am ultimately interested in medicine. I am contemplating an undergrad degree in biomedical engineering that i believe would both satisfy my strong math/physics/chem skills as well as position me well for med school admission. What are your comments on using Biomedical as a med school entry strategy? Thank you in advance.

    • Our general advice is the Biomedical Engineering is not a good path if your ultimate goal is medical school. The courses you take in Engineering may not satisfy entrance requirements, and the likelihood that you will have outstanding grades is low.

  5. Hi,

    I’m going into Guelph’s biomedical engineering program next year. My ultimate goal is going into prosthetic research and design. From what I understand from your post the best flavour for that is mechanical. Do you know if Guelph has a focus on this flavour?

    I was also wondering how well Waterloo does in regards to this? Do you think Waterloo would be a good fit for someone who’s looking to study prosthestics? Would it be worth transferring after my first year and would that even be possible? Or do you think Guelph would be enough for what I plan on doing? I realize you may not be familiar with Guelph’s program so I also plan on speaking to my profs next year about this. Finally, I didn’t apply to co-op but I could in the first year still with high enough grades. Would you recommend doing so?

    Lastly, I just wanted to thank you for this blog post. I’ve been getting a lot of conflicting ideas from teachers, universities and current prosthetists about what programs are best for this field. Your comparison helped me solidify my choice in Guelph opposed to UWO which doesn’t have a undergraduate biomedical engineering program but a graduate one. Thank you again.


    • I don’t have much first-hand knowledge about Guelph’s biomedical engineering program, but the descriptions look quite good for a mix of biomechanical and electrical stuff, which should be a solid basis for prosthetics. I’ve known a number of faculty at Guelph and they seem to offer a nice set of undergraduate programs. I would always recommend co-op if available; there are a lot of things you can learn about engineering and yourself during co-op.

  6. i am little bit confused since there are three flavors in biomedical engineering does that mean as an individual i have to locate my strength and major in one flavor

    and if i am to major in a specific field under biomedical engineering what exactly can i major in for example someone said they wanted to major in prosthestics

    under each flavor can you give me a list of fields i can major in

    i am going to be an international student in Canada i am very worried about which university to choose due to finances yet i want to be at one of the best biomedical engineering universities in Canada
    the universities that i was very interested in are Simon Fraser ,Waterloo university and British Colombia

    before i start my degree in biomedical engineering i had applied for a diploma in medical laboratory sciences is this a good diploma to start with i was also thinking of applying for a diploma in electronics engineering technology in biomedical due to the fact that it is already under biomedical

    i really need your input on this one i want to be prepared before i start anything

    thank you

    • The point of the “flavours” is just to indicate that different universities can have quite a different focus to their curriculum. So before attending one, you should be well aware of what you’re getting into. For example, if you were mainly interested in the mechanical & materials aspects, but attended a program with a strong “electrical flavour”, you may be somewhat disappointed. “Prosthetics” is not really a field to major in, it’s an example of the application of technology, and it could involve mechanical or electrical aspects (or both).

  7. Prof Bill,
    Your article was extremely helpful for better understanding the various BME programs and the differences in offerings between certain Canadian universities.

    I’m a chemical engineering ’87 grad from Waterloo and my daughter, now in grade 11, is seriously interested in BME and UofW. I’ve sent the link to her for further review. Maybe she’s planning to up the game! Haha.

    A couple of questions came to mind:
    1. Does Waterloo have an early admission option for BME based on grade 11 standing?
    2. Is it possible for her to visit and speak with BME profs and/or students about the program? If so, what is the best time of year to do this?

    Anyway, thank you for your helpful insights.


  8. Thank you for this great article. We live in Quebec, where high school finishes at grade 11 and most kids then go to CEGEP. Some universities, such as the University of Ottawa, offer admissions to students right out of grade 11 (i.e. they don’t have grade 12) and just have them take two math courses over the summer to prepare for the biomedical mechanical engineering program. But our daughter is interested in U of Waterloo. Would U of Waterloo also accept a student with a high average and grade 11 (not grade 12) to this program?

    • Probably not. Our goal is always to admit students who are very likely to succeed. Having 1 year (or more) less than the rest of the class, and some quick make-up courses, is a recipe for potential disaster in my experience. The students we admit from Quebec with one or two years of CEGEP do very well in our engineering programs. I’m not familiar with Ottawa’s admission practices.

    • Hi, I don’t have any particular insights or knowledge about that program. When it comes to graduate study, the program can be less important than finding a good match between your interests and the research topic and supervisor.

  9. Dear Prof Anderson,

    Thank you very much for this very insightful article. Since you wrote this article over seven years ago, I was wondering if you are able to provide any further updates on undergraduate BME programs in Canada including any changes to the programs you have already mentioned. Thanks a lot again for your very useful blogs.


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