Enhancing student learning through trans-disciplinary project-based assessment in bioengineering

  • Lionel Lam University of Melbourne
  • Thomas Cochrane
  • Vijay Rajagopal
  • Katie Davey
  • Sam John
Keywords: biomedical engineering, collaborative curriculum design, authentic learning, design-based research, transdisciplinary project, hybrid mode teaching and learning


The Bioengineering Systems major offered at the University of Melbourne aims to enable students to rigorously integrate mathematics and modelling concepts with the fundamental sciences of biology, physics, and chemistry in order to solve biomedical engineering problems. This requires mastery of core concepts in engineering design, programming, mechanics, and electrical circuits. Historically, these concepts have been sequestered into separate subjects, with minimal cross-curricular references. This has resulted in the compartmentalisation of these concepts, with students often failing to appreciate that these seemingly disparate ideas can be synergistically combined to engineer larger, more capable systems. Building the capability of students to integrate these trans-disciplinary concepts is a unique aspect of the major that seeks to prepare students to solve real-world problems in the digital age (Burnett, 2011).


We previously implemented trans-disciplinary design in the second-year subject Biomechanical Physics and Computation by integrating the teaching of mechanics and programming (typically covered in separate subjects in standard engineering degrees). This integration was explored largely through assessment redesign that focuses upon authentic learning (Bozalek et al., 2014). In these assessments, students have to model real-world mechanical systems using programming, for example, the construction of an animated physics-based model for a bicep curl. Here, an understanding of either the mechanics or programming component is insufficient to properly complete these assessments – students necessarily have to master both in order to perform well. Student feedback surveys have indicated that student learning has benefited from this redesign, as they have helped put programming concepts in a real-world context by demonstrating their utility in solving complex physics problems. Quantitatively, trans-disciplinary design has contributed to improvements in the following survey scores from 2017 (pre-redesign) to 2019: “I found the assessment tasks useful in guiding my study”: 3.85 to 4.43, “I learnt new ideas, approaches, and/or skills”: 3.88 to 4.32, “I learnt to apply knowledge to practice”: 3.63 to 4.13 (averages, maximum: 5).


To further model trans-disciplinary design, we have established a collaborative curriculum design team (Laurillard, 2012) to develop a coordinated set of learning activities and assessments centred around the design, construction, and control of a bionic limb. Using design-based research (McKenney & Reeves, 2019), our team will model a design-based research approach within the curriculum over a two-year project timeline. By integrating these learning activities across four core subjects in the Bioengineering Systems major, students will be involved in an authentic learning project that integrates the concepts taught in the context of a larger system. The project involves hands-on design and fabrication of a bionic limb facilitated by a learner-centric ecology of resources (Luckin, 2008), including an ePortfolio consisting of Jupyter Notebook, GitLab, MS Teams and Adobe Spark. The intended learning outcomes are to enhance students’ capacity to integrate trans-disciplinary knowledge by providing continuity in assessments and learning objectives across our curriculum.

The presentation will outline the methodology behind the collaborative trans-disciplinary curriculum design project and will also explore how the team is navigating the impact of COVID-19 on a traditionally lab-based project in a hybrid mode.


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How to Cite
Lam, L., Cochrane, T., Rajagopal, V., Davey, K., & John, S. (2021). Enhancing student learning through trans-disciplinary project-based assessment in bioengineering. Pacific Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 3(1), 4-5. https://doi.org/10.24135/pjtel.v3i1.80