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Singapore University Of Technology & Design Open House aftermath thoughts – Part 2 April 14, 2012

Posted by @Karen_Fu in change, creativity, design, education, Singapore, USA.
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Our colleges here grow quick in terms of grades. In no time, SUTD (Singapore University Of Technology and Design)will get almost all their students in the band of straight A-s. A global sign seems to be similar throughout all colleges alike, that a great education is one that not only engineers but also focuses on plenty of soft skills as well.

When I read about graduates pay at TODAYonline I cannot help but to think the education sector here is off. SMU (Singapore Management University) and indeed SUTD may overtake the other 2 local universities in 20 years given the current state of development. It goes to show something: we are no longer a place where traditional learning will see you through at work. That’s a good thing. But on the other hand, it shows another trend and that is our local born bred colleges are short of great networks that SMU and SUTD are enjoying. The former with the lead college from the U of Penn. The latter, with MIT. These are top of the world insitutions whose network are unmatched. If our NUS (National University Of Singapore) and NTU (Nanyang Technological University) are going to remain at top 2 here, they have to adapt to a new curriculum that entails invention and creativity. If we look at SMU and SUTD carefully, their curriculums are not 100% original. But what they are smart at is their way of branding themselves by implementing structure with a huge private sector appeal. Overall academic quality is definitely there but our students are short of real life experience ( as in experiencing hard life, trying situations that require them to problem solve. In short they are not street smart enough)

I am always keen in anything that concerns education. It changes minds, and it has a profound impact on the way a society would run. It has always been and it will always be.  When I saw the open house at SUTD, and when it happen to land on a semi free Saturday, I seized the day to go and visit. I should have actually stayed at home for a good nap due to a prolonged period of late nights without much sleep. But the course structure has an unique engineering and technology education.   And after reading heaps of it in the media for so long, and having met the associate provost and his secretary before, I thought I must see it myself. I am by nature too curious.  Usually people love inquisitive students/people, that’s how discoveries are found. And thats learning. (But I think some people may not like it somehow.) On with the post:

The college imprints the mark by saying it will change the world.

Quote: ‘In his remarks, Magnanti, president of SUTD and Institute Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, noted: “Like all the great universities of the world, SUTD will be research-intensive and bring the fruits of research into the classroom and into the marketplace. As the largest technically intensive design center in the world, in both scope and size, the IDC aims [for] no less than to change the world.’
‘Change’ has been the buzz word since President Obama has used it in his presidential campaign 4 years back.  We need change.  Change really means to be different. It has a completely different tone to ‘modify’ which means alter by moderation. If we need ‘Change’, it refers to a different character and intellectual set. Many students here in Singapore have the latter part.  You could find straight A scorers in the so-called 30 percentile, and thats not a rare scenario here. Getting A-s today is probably a global trend. Better grades achieved than what their predecessors have gotten decades ago. But the quality of problem solving in dire / trying times may not be an easy feat to many, if not most of the academically brilliant people. I attribute this to 2 main factors: complexity and the egoism in the way of thought. The kind that pretends to be great but small in the minds to admit we need ruthless change. I love the way Prof Ken Robinson has made his TED speech on creativity. It is the point of a truly receptive mind that makes the mark. Our Singapore colleges here could define the moment if and only if we earnestly want to make the change away from being obsessed in grades and prestige, and learn for the sole sake of learning.

But often we do not see the kind of thinking that includes the guts to just ask about doubts that linger in our minds. We have lost guts to challenge the norm. The emaphasis on arts is important. Hard core and soft core subjects need to be inclusive in any education. The emphasis shouldn’t be just on pragmatic interests.

When I was looking at the kind of support they have, and the way they could even let new students put up work at Chinatown and make it so huge, shows the kind of  support they have to grow a school almost instantly. (More of this later in the next part.) As I was looking on, I was thinking what they have set out to do.

When they declare they want to change the world,that change  must be modest to include the commoners at the base level. No one’s a great leader without this inclusion. Period.

First off, I think that the defined leader is one who knows how to handle social economic woes in favour of the commoner. This is a global call. But it didn’t come clearly evident to me in that respect. It appears to have more academic pride that it is already in sync to take over the world without much feat on how one could get on with all for any design contribution. I was further alarmed when I was snoopying around. It is evident many of their students think they are everything. When we want leaders to change the world, we want a positive change that includes earnest empathy of what needs to be done. Though the school emphasizes on the candidates themselves more than grades, I suspect this is hard to achieve given the intended small quota for their first intake to ensure the entry grades are superior. It is understandable they need to keep the grades up. No one wants to take a academic laggard in. While grades are important, they are often not the true testament of genuine intelligence and wisdom. Creativity cannot be seen in grades either. It is seen through the way they handle problems.

I wasn’t impressed by their students way of presenting the methodology, in particular with one of their students. To me, it was rather impolite with his arms swinging all over apart from failing to briefly describe what it was. It was only after I started talking about the story behind the creative process that he seemed to really talk properly. My impression was he thought he knew it all until he realised someone knew just as much or even more.

I went on talking to another student at the Robotics section, which  was a pleasure though. He clearly was aware of many of the ideas behind. The atmosphere of the school looked fun and casual, but somewhere behind the back of my mind says the work of the true mind is still elitist in style from the way the people who answered my questions. If they were to promote lifelong learning, which means you learn from 18 to 80, they should not have such mindset. I had asked if I should do an undergrad because I see the Bachelors as a perfect recipe. I had that idea when I was an undergrad and grossly thought I was not educated in the right way. Hence I did the spare on my own by visiting other schools and see what they we’re doing. Not that it wasn’t multidisciplinary at my school, but it was short of doing Mathematics, which I saw it as vital.  Now I agree with the associate provost, that doing  the bachelor’s a waste. I don’t need it. But there are holding points on the postgrad too. Admittingly, the course rekindles the studying idea in me. But, I start to ask questions.

I was reading the printed brouchures for Chemical engineering and I thought it look as though they are teaching students ‘how to see’ in a literal way. Creativity cannot be taught, though it can be experienced. The process may be guided but no one must attempt to teach as though there is a fixed formula for innovation. There isn’t.

Brilliance don’t come at a particular age. They could come in at any stage in person’s life or may not come at all. The point is, people’s maturing minds do change. Some from brilliance to bust. Some grow gradually over time. A great school is opened to anyone brilliant at any age to enter. I have seen people reading 2nd and 3rd degrees in a different field or emphasis when they have already been working. I used to have a friend who has 3 bachelors: Medical, Physics, and Dentistry. Another coursemate of mine was a 60 year old woman who just wanted to pop back to college because she wanted to realise her ideas in ceramics. Turned out brilliant. Sometimes, certain things don’t come at 18. And many times, things come clearer after a certain age, especially true if one has gone through life experiences.

I started off listening to the talks by the President. Prof Magnanti, and his newly appointed pillars. SUTD has not followed the tradition to name their colleges in terms of ‘schools’ and ‘faculties’ but in the name of ‘Pillars’. I like their talk, especially their ethusiasm. Their teaching style, which reminds me of my own schooling years. He first posed the question on the greatest 20 innovations of all time. And he started of engineering as the primer to innovation. Engineering empowers the world. So what is the place of Design in Engineering was my immediate reaction. Bearing a semi awake position, I had totally forgotten my question.

They started off stating that engineering is important to changing the way we live. Engineering is important in our lives.  That itself actually made my first query. What is interesting was the list of top 20 inventions that shaked our lives. It was really an energetic session. No one was asleep but I suspect many do not think beyond them.

I was flipping through their paedagogy as I was listening. Now I have more than a ton of questions.

The same set of strengths could turn out to be pitfalls too if they don’t manage it properly. Their multidisciplinary approach is no new idea in paedagogy. Their inclusion of humanities, engineering and technology isn’t either. But what is a first is the way they put in aesthetics into the programme along with business and technology in. Student quality, from the way I see it, appears to range from extremely good to mediocre. Some do not appear to speak well, especially the student who did the bicycle design. He simply rode on it, spoken a little, and rode off. The President, Prof Magnanti, was wondering why he missed explaining in detail about the unique mechanism. I was looking as closely as I could. I don’t know who was the American guy in the other hall, but he just giberishly went through the design process chart. I knew what it was, and I asked him about the Stanford Program. Wasn’t happy with the answer apart from the food ramblings. However, I like the Robotics section. Smart guy. As well as the hands on workshop, though really it isn’t anything new. In fact, I didn’t like the idea that the students were given too many tools. You should them minimal tools. Best to give them close to nothing. I recall when I was at freshmen’s orientation, I was told to use only 2 pieces of plain paper to make a package holding 2 raw eggs uphill and downhill on a bicycle. It has to bear a cultural context. I did it in the form of a Chinese Fan. I loved the small projects. The projects they had at SUTD was nice. But I think they seem to complicated with too ‘engineering thinking’. I don’t know how to put it, but in a design process, you are not lumbered with too many schema like they did. They come close to teaching you how to think. On one point, its good. However on the other hand, it could be seen as bad as far as original thinking goes.

I wasn’t pleased with their design ideas given all the press coverage and MIT collaboration. I expect much higher standards. Maybe I was asking for the sky as I read the many ingenious inventions covered by MIT.  Neither did I think the models were great. Model skills are not as important as design thinking skills, but neither should this kind of poor craftsmanship be allowed as they have state of the art workshops!

They are putting a brand image to the school which is obvious. The MIT collaboration gave them a lot of distinct advantage mainly because of the network. They want to change the world and they want their IDC (International Design Centre) to be the best in the world.

My personal belief is that for a person to become a leader, that person must be more than tough and not live in an environment where everything is cushioned. Smooth sailing doesn’t groom a tough leader who can implement change.

Enginering is first fiddler in my impression.  They have repacked it with aesthetics. But they do not pay much to the true blood of design was my other impression.When some thing is done with purely engineering, it seems to lack human touch somehow. Try seeing a fully craft based product and an engineering product to see my point of view.

I was almost surprised to see sheets of photopapers with information on how they teach Chemistry. It really looked like ‘How to think’ sheets. Again, I have questions.

Maybe I have answered everything already myself within my mind. I doubt it is really a radical change. You could say it is transitional. And the course is definitely alive but I wouldn’t say it comes free without the ego, mainly because of the MIT element.

Course syllabus looks great and attractive but with doubts if it will really include design element in the human sense. Cheerios ! — Karen Fu



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