Redesigning a Phd Course to Promote Interdisciplinarity and Cultivate Key 21st-Century Skills: An Exploratory Study

Redesigning a PhD Course to Promote Interdisciplinarity and Cultivate Key 21st-Century Skills: An Exploratory Study


1Rafi RASHID and 2Mingxun LIM

1 NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences & Engineering, National University of Singapore
2 Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore

Name:     Dr Rafi RASHID
Address:  NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences & Engineering School of Applied Science, University Hall, Tan Chin Tuan Wing Level 04, #04-02, 21 Lower Kent Ridge Road, Singapore 119077

Recommended Citation:
Rashid, R., & Lim M. X. (2020). Redesigning a PhD course to promote interdisciplinarity and cultivate key 21st-century skills: An exploratory study. Asian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2). 171-189.

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There is a growing yet unmet need for PhD curricula to cultivate skills needed to confront 21st-century challenges. One such skill is interdisciplinarity, which is deemed essential for dealing with various complex problems such as climate change, antibiotic resistance, and sustainability. When we reflected on the nature of our “Integrative Sciences and Engineering” course, we found that the emphasis was on content knowledge and didactic modes of instruction rather than on teaching students the definition and process of interdisciplinarity. Hence, we redesigned part of the course to promote interdisciplinary learning more explicitly. To do this, we consulted the literature on interdisciplinary graduate education, which suggests that interdisciplinarity be operationalised as collaboration in a STEM context. Thus, we adopted from the literature a model designed to promote interdisciplinary thinking. We also introduced blended learning to provide our students with a means to practice interdisciplinarity and thus collaborate more effectively. To assess the effectiveness of these interventions, we sought to answer two research questions: (1) What was the impact of the model and blended learning on promoting interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration? (2) How did the students perceive these changes? To answer these questions, we analysed students’ discussion forum posts, instructor and peer feedback, group presentations, and results of surveys and interviews. Our findings suggest that the model and blended learning approach function synergistically to help students think and act in an interdisciplinary way, and that students were generally receptive to these changes. We expect that our work will be relevant to the scholarship of interdisciplinary graduate education as well as to current efforts aimed at reforming doctoral curricula. 

Keywords: PhD curriculum, blended learning, discussion forum, instructor feedback, peer feedback, science education


To face the challenges of the 21st century, some have called for an overhaul of doctoral programmes so that PhD students are trained to be thinkers rather than just specialists. The ability to think innovatively and across disciplinary boundaries has been identified as one such skill by those calling for such reforms (Bosch & Casadevall, 2017). Interdisciplinarity is becoming more and more important because problems in the real world “rarely arise within orderly disciplinary categories, and neither do their solutions” (Palmer, 2001).

The Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering (NGS) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) runs a full-time research-intensive PhD programme that lasts four years. In the first two years of their PhD programme, our students have to complete a core curriculum consisting of three courses. One of these courses (“Interface Sciences and Engineering”) was established to encourage interdisciplinarity amongst our students. However, the course is characterised by didactic instruction and summative assessments that prioritise students’ content knowledge. Instead of equipping students with interdisciplinary skills needed to deal with the complexity of 21st-century challenges, the current approach merely exposes them to a selection of research topics in a traditional classroom setting. We thus sought to revise the module to cultivate such interdisciplinary skills, which will stand our students in good stead during their PhD research and beyond.

Literature Review

As part of our effort to undertake curricular reform, we consulted the available literature on interdisciplinary graduate education. We found only a few examples of attempts at curricular reform at the doctoral level. For example, Lorsch and Nichols (2011) describe how Bronson et al. (2011) shifted from a disciplinary to an interdisciplinary focus by reorganising their curriculum into three ‘‘nodes’’ (N) and introducing two parallel integrative courses that draw ‘‘connections’’ (C) between these nodes. This updated curriculum was designed to facilitate content delivery across scales in an integrative manner and thus help to forge interdisciplinary research collaborations. The importance of interdisciplinary approaches in contemporary biological research is increasingly recognised in a culture where most graduate students are still receiving the traditional form of research training that focuses on individual disciplines (Bronson et al., 2011).

Wagner et al. (2012) describe a “Distributed Graduate Seminars” (DGS) model in their landscape genetics course. The DGS deploys web-based technology to equip both students and faculty members with skills for engaging in research collaborations, and to provide them with a common language and knowledge base. In recognition of the fact that no single research group has expertise in both population genetics and landscape ecology, this model was designed to overcome barriers to scientific communication and collaboration across these disciplines. Thus, the authors developed a new graduate course that trains students to collaborate across institutions in an online environment. 

Similarly, in the realm of sustainability science, collaborative skills are essential for addressing the world’s most pressing and complex sustainability problems which, due to their social, natural, and engineering science dimensions, are inherently interdisciplinary in nature (Knowlton et al., 2014). In their course, students participated in face-to-face (F2F) sessions to discuss readings, online discussions, and graded assignments1. One key recommendation that emerged from this pilot study was to place a stronger emphasis on helping students from different disciplines develop a common scientific language through collaboration. 

In search of relevant learning objectives for our own STEM-based programme, we reviewed the pedagogical literature on the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) programme. To propose learning outcomes for science and engineering graduate education, Borrego and Newswander (2010) combined practical knowledge from science and engineering faculty with humanities-based interdisciplinary education literature. When they analysed 129 successful proposals submitted to the IGERT programme, they found that many interdisciplinary courses emphasised collaboration. They concluded that science and engineering faculty tend to operationalise interdisciplinarity as collaboration, a finding corroborated by literature from humanities scholars such as Repko (2008, p. 44), who described interdisciplinarity amongst scientists and engineers as frequently being a collaborative process: 

An expert interdisciplinarian is one who is able to integrate the input of others to address an issue, which may include coordinating team members. This trait applies especially to interdisciplinarians engaged in technical and scientific studies that most commonly involve teamwork. 

In addition, Borrego and Cutler (2010) wanted to ascertain the extent to which desired learning outcomes, activities, and assessments were constructively aligned. An analysis of 130 funded proposals from the IGERT programme revealed that constructive alignment was generally lacking. Their recommendations were to define clear learning objectives, seek assessment expertise, and constructively align different elements of the curriculum. 

Several common themes emerge from this literature. Firstly, collaboration is essential for promoting interdisciplinarity in a science and engineering context. Secondly, online platforms are useful in fostering collaboration. Thirdly, faculty members felt there was a need to redesign their courses to make them truly interdisciplinary. It should be noted, however, that these examples are all from the North American context and therefore may not be wholly transferable to our Asian context. Nonetheless, we took the above approaches into consideration when deciding how to redesign our module. Hence, in sharing our experiences and providing insights on the kinds of reform that were well received by students, especially in the Asian context, our current study would thus contribute to the field of interdisciplinary graduate education. 

Redesigning the Interface Sciences and Engineering Module

In line with the general need for doctoral reform, we decided to redesign our own Interface Sciences and Engineering (ISE) module. ISE is a compulsory module that students are required to take before their PhD qualifying examination. It is taught over 10 weeks and covers five topics, with two weeks being allocated to each topic. Each topic is taught by different lecturers. Thus, only the first topic, conducted by the corresponding author (who was also the course coordinator), was redesigned. It was hoped that if such changes were effective, other lecturers could be persuaded to change their mode of instruction in similar ways for future iterations of the course.

A typical class of 24-30 individuals would include students from biology, chemistry, computing, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Thus, conditions are ripe in this course for promoting collaboration between students representing multiple STEM disciplines where previously, the course focused on delivering content knowledge about certain topics in science and engineering. 

Introducing a New Topic: Microbiomes and Sustainability

To encourage students to think about the complex problems facing society, we introduced “Microbiomes and Sustainability” as a new topic into ISE. At a recent conference on the above theme, one of the keynote speakers, Alexander Zehnder, claimed that Earth’s microbiomes (also known as microbial communities) are fundamental pillars of sustainability (Zehnder, 2017). He argued that microbiomes have strong connections with eight of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Zehnder concluded his talk by advocating that educators place more emphasis on the role microbiomes would play in securing a sustainable future. Thus, for the new topic, we wanted students to think about how microbiomes could contribute to sustainability and do so in an interdisciplinary manner.

Given the topic’s complexity, the definition of interdisciplinarity that we adopted was that of Repko and Szostak (2017). They define interdisciplinarity as a “process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline, and draws on the disciplines with the goal of integrating their insights to construct a more comprehensive understanding” (Repko & Szostak, 2017, p. 21). Complementing this definition is their “Integrated Model of the Interdisciplinary Research Process (IRP)” (“Broad Model” for short), which is designed to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. The model is divided into two main parts—“drawing on disciplinary insights” and “integrating disciplinary insights” (see Appendix 1 for full version of the Model). The Broad Model emphasises integration of disciplinary insights as the hallmark of interdisciplinarity (Repko & Szostak, 2017). Thus, in our opinion the Broad Model would promote interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration amongst our students by making both the definition and process of interdisciplinarity explicit (Rashid, 2019). By enabling individuals to apply their training to new contexts such as the “Microbiomes and Sustainability” topic, the interdisciplinary process is expected to embolden individuals to handle complex problems without feeling pressured to cling to their own disciplinary perspectives (Repko et al., 2017).

Introducing Blended Learning

The corresponding author consulted colleagues at our university’s Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL) for advice on how to make the module less didactic. Furthermore, based on experience it was evident that students were usually quite reserved during F2F classes. As discussed elsewhere, this latter problem seems to be commonly encountered in the Singapore context (Rashid, 2019). Thus, there was a need to create opportunities for collaborative discussions in a “safe” environment outside the classroom. On the advice of our colleagues at CDTL, we introduced blended learning into the course for the first time. Blended learning is defined as the “organic integration of thoughtfully selected and complementary face-to-face and online approaches and technologies” (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008), which we believed would enrich students’ learning experiences beyond what is possible within the traditional classroom (De George-Walker & Keeffe, 2010). We also hoped that by introducing technology, students would continue interacting and collaborating with each other outside the classroom and thus put the Broad Model into practice. 

To redesign the module, we introduced the following activities for the topic “Microbiomes and Sustainability” (Figure 1). Our students first participated in an F2F lecture which introduced the instructor, the module outline and instructions for the first topic. Next, they were split into groups comprising students from various STEM disciplines to commence group discussions on the assignment under the instructor’s supervision. Afterwards, they had to watch a series of video lectures that introduced the topic “Microbiomes and Sustainability”. For one week, they participated in online activities which included an asynchronous discussion forum to promote dialogue between students, and a feedback exercise in which they commented on their peers’ presentation outlines. Rubrics were provided to the students at the start of the course. 

The instructor provided feedback on students’ presentation outlines in the middle of the week. Each group was assigned a “partner group”, and respective partner groups exchanged questions as peer feedback by the end of the week. After completing the online activities, students delivered F2F group presentations, with additional time allotted for questions and consolidated F2F feedback from the instructor.


Figure 1. The format and duration of the topic “Microbiomes and Sustainability”. The blended learning format featured both asynchronous (blue) and synchronous (green) activities.

Purpose and Goals of the Study

The purpose of this pilot study was to explore whether the Broad Model, combined with blended learning, would be useful in promoting interdisciplinary thinking amongst our students. The goal of this study was to test the effectiveness of the above framework and format in promoting collaboration amongst students representing diverse STEM disciplines in an Asian graduate classroom. 

Research Questions

This study addresses the following research questions:

  1. What is the impact of the Broad Model and blended learning on promoting interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration?
  2. What are students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of this approach?

Addressing these questions is important for achieving some of the goals of doctoral programme reform outlined in the Introduction.



With approval from our Institutional Review Board (IRB-S17-367), twenty-nine PhD students (20 males and 9 females) participated in this study. All of them were enrolled in the ISE module. The redesigned topic consisted of both online and F2F sessions. The online component was delivered via the “Integrated Virtual Learning Environment” (IVLE), the university’s learning management system (LMS) at the time of the study. 

Analysis of students’ work

We looked at students’ forum posts and final presentations for evidence of the extent to which they were able to apply our new framework in their discussions and how it influenced their final presentations. It must be emphasised that, since this was the first time we were introducing these changes, it was not our intention to find out how effective these interventions were, as compared to having no intervention, as there was no fair basis of comparison (students worked on something completely different during previous semesters). Instead, we hoped to see qualitatively how students applied this framework and whether it was useful for them. 

Surveys and interviews

To better understand students’ perceptions of our interventions, we conducted surveys and interviews. Guided by the literature on interdisciplinary learning theory and blended learning, we designed both the survey and interview guide ourselves. The survey and interview guide included questions about the effectiveness of the blended learning environment, instructor feedback, peer feedback, and the interdisciplinary framework in promoting interdisciplinarity. The survey contained a mix of quantitative and qualitative questions, and the interview guide comprised open-ended questions (see Appendix 2 for the full survey questionnaire). For the survey data, we tabulated the results and calculated the percentage of responses for each choice. Notes taken during the interview were analysed for common themes and were compared with the survey data to reveal any correlations.

Findings and Discussion

In this section, we present our analysis of discussion forum posts, instructor and peer feedback, and student presentation content to reveal the impact of the framework and blended learning (the latter referring to discussion forums, instructor and peer feedback, and the two F2F lectures) on interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration. We analysed the collated survey and interview data to reveal our students’ perceptions of these interventions. Lastly, we suggest improvements.

Online forum discussions

Based on the literature that we surveyed and requirements of the new topic, we set two learning objectives for our students: (1) to argue for the role that microbiomes could play in environmental sustainability by drawing on insights from different disciplines, and (2) to engage in collaboration by integrating ideas from classmates representing multiple disciplines. The class was divided into groups of five students who would collaborate to prepare presentations on the link between microbiomes and one of the United Nation’s SDGs.

To promote sharing of disciplinary insights, students were instructed to rely on the Broad Model, with a focus on stating the research question, identifying relevant disciplines, and integrating their ideas. As part of blended learning, we introduced asynchronous online discussion forums to promote collaboration between group members outside of the classroom. 

Figure 2 and Figure 3 show representative forum posts from two groups. Their posts show that they have considered and utilised the Broad Model to guide their thinking, which later helped them produce better interdisciplinary solutions in their presentations. For all posts, student’s names have been redacted to protect their privacy (click on Figure 2 to view in full size).


Figure 2. Students discussing how their own disciplines would be relevant to solving the interdisciplinary problem.
(Click on Figure 2 to view the full discussions)

Group 1 appreciates that the problem is complex in nature and rightly argues for an interdisciplinary approach in which they would all contribute to the solution through integration, the hallmark of interdisciplinarity (Figure 2). They understand that an interdisciplinary approach is necessary for them to come up with realistic solutions, which is consistent with the definition of interdisciplinarity as a process of solving a problem that is too complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline. They put the Broad Model into practice by suggesting how their respective disciplines are relevant to the problem, e.g. how computer science might improve our understanding of how communication occurs between microorganisms within biofilms. Having agreed on the scope of their project, they proceed to split the work between them, start contributing their ideas, and prepare for subsequent integration, indicating that collaboration is happening. In addition, they agree to evaluate their solution as a group. They indicate that the problem’s complexity requires them to think outside the box as they articulate and integrate knowledge from their respective disciplines. As the discussion ensues, they begin to appreciate how their ideas converge to address the complexity of their assigned SDG of “Good Health & Well-Being”, and decide to explicitly show in their presentation how they think their respective disciplines are relevant to their solution, thus demonstrating how they have collaboratively worked towards said solution.


Figure 3. Students using the discussion forum to contribute insights into complex problems from their respective disciplinary perspectives.
(Click on Figure 3 to view the full discussions)

Similarly, Group 2 outlines the problem and suggests how their respective disciplines would be relevant, e.g. synthetic biology for engineering microbes, and chemistry for appreciating nitrogen fixation and the bioavailability of elements in soil (Click on Figure 3 to view the full discussion). In reiterating an earlier point made by the lecturer regarding the need to overcome disciplinary silos, they demonstrate that they understand that their assigned SDG of “Zero Hunger” is sufficiently complex to necessitate an interdisciplinary approach where they must work towards integration rather than fragmentation. They correctly argue that the interdisciplinary nature of microbiome studies necessitates the development of new research tools and methodologies, which would involve the integration of scientific and engineering knowledge. 

Based on certain key themes (i.e. state research question, recognise that the problem is complex, identify relevant disciplines, integrate disciplinary insights, and collaborate) that have emerged from their forum discussion, it is evident that both groups understood the definition of interdisciplinarity and applied the Broad Model successfully. The Model and the forum function synergistically to help students think and act in an interdisciplinary way. Consistent with Repko’s (2008, p. 44) definition of an interdisciplinarian, our students have successfully coordinated their group discussions and integrated group members’ inputs. Applying the Model in their discussions had a positive influence on their final presentations (as will be summarised later).

Forum discussions indicated that students were actively utilising the Broad Model. These discussions yielded insights that they used in their presentations and generated solutions that reflected a better understanding of interdisciplinarity. This observation is in line with what many studies have found, i.e. that asynchronous communication via forums can be useful in promoting critical thinking and collaboration, as discussions are more “thoughtful, reasoned, and draw evidence from other sources” (Abrams, 2005; Meyer, 2003, p. 6). Online forums can serve as a permanent record and help students organise their thoughts which, in turn, aids reflection and critical thinking (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). This is especially useful in interdisciplinary learning, where students must grapple with many new terminologies and integrate insights from a wider range of sources. For instance, forum threads and headers could be used to keep track of the topic at hand. As is evident from our students’ discussions and presentations, such collaboration, when coupled with the Broad Model, can lead to the production of meaningful interdisciplinary solutions amongst students. 

Most students reported that one of their greatest takeaways from their forum discussions and interactions with their presentation group-mates was learning how to communicate and collaborate with people of other disciplines more effectively, given that they had to explain difficult and unfamiliar terminologies and concepts in their respective fields to one another. They suggested how this experience would help them in their careers, namely that within academia they might need to collaborate with people from different disciplines, whereas outside academia it would be crucially important for them to communicate technical knowledge with their layperson colleagues. 

However, even though students used the forums extensively (we did not mandate a minimum number of posts each student should contribute), only a minority of students (35.8%; see Table 1) indicated on the survey that they liked using the forums. Interviews revealed that this was more to do with the technical deficiencies of our LMS which resulted in, for example, students posting over each other. Furthermore, they said that the discussion forum interface in the LMS was not user-friendly because it was difficult to view and keep track of posts and respond in a timely manner. As a result, they preferred other online platforms such as Google Docs, and/or instant messaging services such as WhatsApp to conduct discussions. Overall, while the discussion platform itself could be improved to further stimulate students’ critical thinking, merely having such a platform and incentivising students to use it also serves to create an environment which fosters interdisciplinary collaboration.

Table 1 
Detailed breakdown of survey results described in the paper. (Click on Table 1 for full view)

Feedback and Presentations

Instructor and peer feedback

Scaffolding online discussions is an important activity that instructors perform to improve students’ experiences in a blended learning environment. Students report higher levels of connectedness and learning when online instructors provide facilitation in online environments, although a careful balance must be struck as too much instructor intervention leads to less student participation (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Shea et al., 2006). In addition to discussion forums, our blended learning format included an online instructor and peer feedback exercise. Apart from monitoring and posting on individual groups’ discussion boards, the instructor provided general feedback on student’s presentation outlines to the entire class in the middle of the week, reminding them about how to better utilise interdisciplinary understandings to propose better solutions (Figure 4). This type of feedback allowed the instructor to reiterate the need to rely on the Broad Model.


Figure 4. Instructor provides feedback to the class halfway through the instructional week.
(Click on Figure 4 for full view)

The above instructor feedback concludes with a reminder to revise the presentation outlines in time for peer feedback from a “partner” group. As mentioned in an earlier section, each of the 3 SDGs was pre-assigned to two groups known as “partner groups”. The purpose of this allocation was to allow the respective partner groups to exchange peer feedback on their presentation outlines at the end of the week, and to exchange questions for the question-and-answer (Q&A) segment during the F2F group presentations. We did not specify what kind of feedback was to be given. However, most groups commented on the interdisciplinary nature of the partner group’s solution, the logical flow of the presentation, and the limitations of the approach. The feedback given to their partner groups suggests that students understood and were actively using the ideas of interdisciplinarity as they also gave their suggestions based on the Broad Model. 

For example, when commenting on Group 2’s presentation outline, Group 1 felt that “the problem-solution link and presentation seem appropriate but solutions seem to mainly come from a biological perspective. Perhaps inclusion of multidisciplinary considerations may be valuable”. 

Meanwhile, Group 3 felt that Group 4 had presented a clear rationale for harnessing the microbiome to achieve their SDG and had explicitly indicated that their approach was interdisciplinary (involving disciplines like biology and engineering). Group 3 noted that Group 4 appreciated the complexity of the problem, and the latter had referred extensively to literature from various disciplines. In their feedback to Group 3, Group 4 said that the outline was “clear but would benefit from greater elaboration”. Specifically, Group 4 said that Group 3 needed to clarify which disciplines (scientific or otherwise) need to work together for the proposed solutions to be successfully implemented. Collectively, these remarks show that students had a good grasp of interdisciplinarity and that they acted upon this feedback when preparing their respective group presentations.

Most students agreed that the instructor’s feedback on the presentation outline was helpful (89.3%), and that the instructor’s feedback on the presentation outline guided them towards more interdisciplinary thinking (85.7%). The instructor’s feedback also served as an appraisal of the students’ current performance. That most of the students in this study found instructor feedback useful is reassuring, and suggests that the instructor feedback in the form of comments and questions was effective. The benefits of teacher feedback have been well-studied, especially in helping to improve student understanding (Kluger & DeNisi, 1998; Ponte et al., 2009), but it was only recently that instructor feedback on online platforms was investigated. As reported by Guo et al. (2014), good instructor feedback improved online cognitive engagement.

In line with Chin and Osborne’s (2008) recommendation that students need to be prodded to ask good questions so as to promote higher-order thinking, we required students to provide both critical comments and questions in their peer feedback. All students welcomed the peer feedback, took the feedback-giving exercise seriously, and felt that their own group had provided their partner group with good questions. 92.9% found the partner group questions helpful. Most students also said that their group had modified their own presentation based on feedback received from the partner group (89.3%), and that having the partner groups review each other’s work was helpful (89.2%). 82.1% agreed that their own group reflected on how to make their project more interdisciplinary after giving feedback to their partner group. 

Giving peer feedback is a common way of promoting student engagement and improving learning outcomes (Gikandi & Morrow, 2016). Receiving peer feedback allows students to justify and explain their positions, rethink them, or re-frame problems entirely to help in problem solving (Kim & Ryu, 2013). As Lu and Law (2012) posit, the act of giving peer feedback has a greater impact on learning outcomes than merely receiving feedback, supporting the idea that students do think about their own work in the process. This peer feedback exercise had the added advantage of encouraging spontaneous questions during the face-to-face Q&A, which was a vast improvement from the traditional format where hardly any students would ask questions. Giving feedback to their group members online, giving feedback to other groups, and then improving upon received feedback is thus a form of “social reflection” and “articulation” (Herrington & Herrington, 2006), which are important for making learning authentic and collaboratively creating knowledge.

Student Presentations

In their presentations, students were ultimately able to integrate ideas from their forum discussions and feedback given by the instructor and their peers, showing a marked improvement from the outlines they had initially submitted. They generated innovative solutions and more explicitly discussed how various disciplines might contribute to making these solutions more workable in real life. For instance, Group 1 presented out- of-the-box thinking through a creative manipulation of bacterial communication in biofilms, drawing on computational science, biology, chemistry and physics. They concluded the presentation by presenting the very powerful idea that nature is “interdisciplinary” and that it should be approached it in an interdisciplinary manner.

Similarly, Group 2 explicitly integrated ideas from engineering, biological, and chemical perspectives to suggest how the microbiome could improve agriculture and nutrition to alleviate hunger, the limitations of these solutions, and new research methods needed to further study this problem.   

Given our limited F2F instructional time, the online discussion forum gave students a platform to continue their discussions and build on each other’s ideas. From their posts, it was clear that the Broad Model served as a useful discussion scaffold as they integrated insights from the model into their discussions and even gave feedback to other groups using it. The instructor could also monitor these discussions and intervene when necessary, prompting students to elaborate on good ideas, or giving them suggestions of other things to include. 

Collectively, our findings suggest that blended learning combined with the Broad Model framework helped to foster collaboration, and ultimately helped students achieve a better understanding of interdisciplinarity, which was reflected in their presentations.

Conclusions and Future Directions

As this exploratory study shows, the interdisciplinary framework combined with blended learning promoted collaboration amongst our PhD students. Making the interdisciplinary process explicit via the definition of interdisciplinarity as well as the Broad Model guided students towards achieving the learning objectives for the topic “Microbiomes and Sustainability”. Our use of the Broad Model to guide students in their interdisciplinary work is similar to an approach adopted by Stamp et al (2015), who conducted workshops as part of their interdisciplinary research programme to train novice undergraduates and especially their graduate mentors for interdisciplinary research with a particular focus on their readiness for collaboration. The workshops’ interdisciplinary research module was based on Allen Repko’s (2008) Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory, which advocates the Broad Model as a process for facilitating effective communication across disciplines. Furthermore, the authors based the workshops’ activities on research problems identified in current events media, such as projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations. These projects address world health problems, which typically necessitate a broad interdisciplinary approach. Recognising the need for educational models that foster interdisciplinarity, others like Bosque-Perez et al. (2016) have devised a model that, inter alia, identifies integrated research questions combining students’ disciplines, and features coursework that explores the theoretical underpinnings of interdisciplinarity in order to achieve integrated proposals that address these questions. Similar to the above examples, “Microbiomes and Sustainability” is a complex and current topic which requires an interdisciplinary approach which would require students to combine their disciplines to devise potential solutions. As students were able to handle the topic “Microbiomes and Sustainability” well, we intend to include it in future semesters.

Our findings suggest that blended learning is an effective way of promoting collaboration in the ISE module’s unique interdisciplinary setting. To make the discussion forums more effective, we suggest providing students with questions that they would answer F2F prior to engaging each other online. Building on ideas expressed in a recent Reflection on Practice, we will design questions that address epistemological and metaphysical issues relevant to interdisciplinary collaboration (Rashid, 2019). These questions, based on the “Toolbox Project” originally developed at the University of Idaho (Eigenbrode et al., 2007), would prompt students of different disciplines to express their views on the philosophical aspects of research, which we believe is a stepping stone to achieving interdisciplinarity. As part of their effort to impart interdisciplinary sustainability science teamwork skills to graduate students using in-person and web-based interactions, Knowlton et al (2014) deployed three out of six Toolbox question sets in class. Similarly, Schmidt et al (2012) observed that epistemological, communication, and methodological barriers impede interdisciplinary boundary-crossing and thus limit researchers’ abilities to collaborate effectively. They suggest that students could use the Toolbox to teach other students about their disciplines and facilitate communication. We will thus design three to four questions based on the original Toolbox questions. Furthermore, given the fact that blended learning could also include online video lectures, we will consider introducing students to the rationale behind the Toolbox project through “micro-lectures” that they will have to watch prior to a F2F discussion of their answers in class.

Overall, our findings suggest that the interdisciplinary framework and blended learning approach that we introduced were useful in promoting interdisciplinary collaboration amongst our students. We believe that our approach represents an important contribution to interdisciplinary educational reform at the doctoral level. The overall goal of such reform would be to train students to be thinkers rather than just specialists (Bosch & Casadevall, 2017). These and other authors have suggested putting the “Philosophy” back into “Doctor of Philosophy” (Blachowicz, 2009; Grayson, 2006; Grune-Yanoff & Grune-Yanoff, 2014; Prather et al., 2009), which inspires us to reform our own curriculum.


This work was supported by the Office of the Provost, National University of Singapore, under the Learning Innovation Fund-Technology (LIFT) grant (C-601-000-007-511 IBLOC GS6883A Interface Sci & Eng). We are grateful to Adrian Michael Lee, Jeanette Choy, Kiruthika Ragupathi, and Alan Soong for their expert advice on course design and blended learning. 


  1. These authors launched a pilot course in which students would (1) review disciplinary and interdisciplinary scientific literature, (2) frame interdisciplinary sustainability science research questions and suggest experimental designs, (3) communicate oral and written proposals, and (4) work successfully in international interdisciplinary science teams.



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About the Corresponding Author

Rafi RASHID is Lecturer and Assistant Director for Programmes at the NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences & Engineering. He is passionate about putting the “Philosophy” back into “Doctor of Philosophy”. His other passion is using technology to enhance teaching and learning, and he has been progressively implementing blended learning in the courses that he teaches. He teaches graduate modules related to integrative sciences and engineering, research ethics and scientific integrity, professional skills and techniques, and scientific communication. He is currently developing an edX Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the interdisciplinary theme of “Microbiomes & Sustainability”.