Real-world biomedical engineering education

Dr Lauren Kark’s biomedical engineering courses deeply engage her students, allowing them to apply their knowledge to practice in healthcare issues that impact on people in the developing world, and on people with disability in Australia.

‘How can I structure a course that deeply engages my students and leaves them enthusiastic and eager to get on with their future careers?’Dr Lauren Kark

This question is central to the thinking of Dr Lauren Kark from the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering (GSBM) who, in 2019, turned two traditionally taught courses – the first-year Engineering in Medicine and Biology (BIOM1010) and the post-graduate Biomechanics of Physical Rehabilitation (BIOM9551) – completely on their heads.

As a determined educator and passionate humanitarian engineer, Kark has already raised the bar at the School for her work creating the Summer Institute in Cambodia and Uganda program, in close association with not-for-profit, Engineering World Health (EWH).

“The Summer Institute offers students the opportunity to apply their creativity and engineering know-how to broken-down hospital equipment in Cambodia and Uganda. It was one of the student assessments that inspired me to rewrite BIOM1010,” explains Kark.

“We give Summer Institute participants a task to create a ‘needs-based assessment’ to improve the hospital’s services or healthcare provision in some way. I realised I could use the student-created needs-based assessment as the basis to transform Engineering in Medicine and Biology into a project-based learning course,” she says.

Brimming with excitement at this unique idea, she reached out to Summer Institute participants to see if they were keen to suggest suitable projects to work on and, as an added twist, she also invited them to act as mentors to the first-years as they travelled through the course.

“They were really keen! We had eight projects with two mentors per class who spent two hours a week with their group. Projects included making a centrifuge, a heart rate monitor, an ECG machine, a wheelchair out of a bicycle, two water distillation units, surgical doors that prevent contamination, and a hands-free IV stand.”

William Hobbs, a Mechatronic/Biomedical Engineering student was one of the first-years who participated in the revamped course. He worked on a design for a centrifuge.

“Because we were addressing a real-world issue, the main project was really interesting. It allowed me to learn and sharpen a wide variety of essential skills in engineering including CAD, coding, circuitry, 3D printing and laser cutting.”

I cannot explain the atmosphere in the classroom the first week when we told the students what they’d be doing – it was pure excitement! There is huge power in project-based learning because once you’ve got a student engaged in their own learning, the world is their oyster.

Dr Lauren Kark, Senior Lecturer, UNSW Biomedical Engineering and Academic Lead of UNSW EWH Chapter

Hobbs says he would really recommend the course to others. “We were given ample time to do the course work within the tutorial lessons which helped me get a better idea of how projects should be paced. I also made good friends in my teammates,” he continues.

The second course transformed by Kark was Biomechanics of Physical Rehabilitation – a postgraduate course delivered as part of the Master of Biomedical Engineering.

“Previously, this course was taught very much in the traditional style of lectures and tutorials, with a small project, but again, I wanted to make it more applied and practical,” Kark explains.

“The central theme is physical rehabilitation, so we created a course where students collaborate in the design and creation of bespoke technology directly with people with disability, or those who work with people with disability.”

In partnership with Mainsbridge School for Specific Purposes, a school for children with disability in Liverpool; clinicians; and NeuroMoves in Menai, a rehab gym for people with conditions including spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy and post-stroke, students worked in teams with individuals to prototype a transformative piece of technology within the 10-week course.

“One of the biggest motivators was to give students exposure to the people who will actually use the technology they create. This helps them develop empathy, gives them a better understanding of the need and, ultimately, will lead to the creation of a much better product,” explains Kark.

Student-led innovations from the course included a ‘squeeze gym’ for children with autism to assist with hyperstimulation, a tailormade GoPro mount for a wheelchair user who likes to do fun runs, and a giant stylus for a student in a wheelchair who hadn’t previously been able to reach the SMART board in their classroom.

“We’ve got a lovely video of a child using the giant stylus for the first time and it’s just amazing. A real melt-your-heart moment. We have another from the GoPro mounted on the wheelchair as the user whizzes around his suburb, showing what the world is like from his perspective,” says Kark.

“That’s very powerful. Hearing directly from the people who use the devices has changed our students’ minds in how they design and will lead to a generation of engineers that understand how important that is.”
Student feedback from the course has been glowing. “This course has easily been the highlight of my uni experience thus far!” says Sarah Anastopoulos. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that biomedical engineers are not the experts. That role belongs to the end users of the devices we design and develop. The client needs to be a part of every step of the design process from conception to completion.”

Her sentiments are echoed by Kate Fahey who says: “The co-creation aspect was a highly motivating experience. Working with teachers and students at Mainsbridge has encouraged me to look towards my future and opened my eyes to the field of rehabilitative engineering, which is something I had not previously considered.”

As for Kark, she is really proud of the course. “I cannot explain the atmosphere in the classroom the first week, when we told the students what they’d be doing – it was pure excitement! There is huge power in project-based learning because once you’ve got a student engaged in their own learning, the world is their oyster.”

Dr Kark would like to acknowledge and thank the Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for their financial assistance that made BIOM9551 possible.

If any readers are interested in sponsoring this course to enable it to continue in the future, please contact Lauren Kark: lauren.kark@unsw.edu.au  

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