Singapore's Newest University Is an Education Lab for Technology

With vital input from MIT—and China—an unorthodox idea takes shape, with implications beyond the city-state's borders

Norman Ng/ for The Chronicle

Bryan Yap, who hopes to design consumer electronics, chose the Singapore U. of Technology and Design because "the MIT lecturers have more experience and would be able to provide better insights into the field ... than the lecturers in the local universities."
November 28, 2010

Every year automakers roll out "concept" cars, which incorporate novel design elements that may become standard years from now. Singapore has taken the rarer step of building a concept university, one meant to road-test the latest in teaching theory and academic features.

Singapore University of Technology and Design, now under construction, is a big gamble for a high-tech city-state that considers a globally competitive work force its key to national survival. Government officials are betting more than $700-million that the new venture will cultivate the next generation of innovators in architecture, engineering, and information systems.

One selling point of the institution, which is to start classes on a temporary campus in 2012, is that it is associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On many renderings of the logo, the words "Established in collaboration with MIT" appear in red letters, suggesting that the new venture expects to replicate the prestigious U.S. university.

But it will be anything but a carbon copy. MIT researchers are treating Singapore's new university as an education laboratory where they can try out new teaching methods and curriculum, some of which may then be taken back to Cambridge.

"Our guiding philosophy has been to try to establish something that's very distinctive," says Thomas L. Magnanti, the Singapore institution's first president, who is a former dean of engineering at MIT. "If we just went and decided to build a new comprehensive university, in 20 years we may not stand out."

MIT has had mixed success in exporting its brand. It was forced to close branch campuses of its Media Lab in Ireland and India after only a few years of operation, after they failed to gain enough financial support. But it has long worked well with universities in Singapore. For years the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology has supported joint research, and MIT helps run the thriving Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab to explore video-game design.

The Singapore leaders are not counting only on MIT, though. The new university has also forged a link with a top Chinese research institution, Zhejiang University, which will design some courses, provide internship opportunities, and conduct joint research. Singapore is even importing an ancient Chinese building, donated by the movie star Jackie Chan, to remind students of Eastern design traditions.

"Singapore within the region seems to be stepping into the deeper waters of the global-university phenomenon," says Gerard A. Postiglione, a professor of social science at the University of Hong Kong and director of China's Wah Ching Centre of Research on Education. He speculates that government leaders in Singapore may hope that the unconventional institution will spur educational innovations that can be adopted by the nation's other universities as well.

The "design" in the new university's name does not mean fashion design. Engineering is the focus, and "design" was used to suggest the mission of taking on real-world problems and quickly moving research from the lab to the marketplace.

Will this "distinctive" new university prove to be a model for the future of education in engineering and design, or will some of its methods prove not ready for the open road?

No Boundaries

Sitting in a conference room in the university's temporary office space on a recent afternoon, Pey Kin-Leong, associate provost, outlines the venture's unusual model. On the wall behind him hang blueprints of buildings that will one day rise on the future campus.

From Day 1, students will be encouraged to apply what they've learned to their own designs, and to find applications for the theories they learn in class, he says.

Traditional disciplinary boundaries will be played down. For the first three semesters, all students will go through the same battery of courses, whether they want to end up as architects, technology-systems managers, or mechanical engineers. That's one semester longer for the core curriculum than at MIT.

In their junior and senior years, students will choose one of four "pillars": architecture, engineering product development, engineering systems, or information systems. Those will be the closest things to majors at the new university, which won't have traditional academic departments.

All students will be required to work in teams to create a final design project and bring it to life.

If a team decided to design a "smart house," for instance, an architecture student would draw the blueprints, technology designers would plan the sensors and other electronics, and the engineering-systems concentrators would help it all work together.

"We want our students to be able to communicate and interact, and cut across the pillars," says Mr. Pey.

Zhejiang University is designing five elective courses for the Singapore institution, all focused on familiarizing students with the cultural aspects of China as an increasingly influential economic power. Among the proposed course titles: "Business Culture and Entrepreneurship in China," "Sustainability of Ancient Chinese Architectural Design in the Modern World," and "History of Chinese Urban Development and Planning."

"Because the Chinese market is huge, this is an opportunity that we are going to give to our students," says Mr. Pey. "If we can understand their mind-set, when our students do the design, the design will be very appealing to people in the Chinese market."

The Singapore university will also connect its students with internship opportunities in the United States, in China, and at a group of major technology companies in the city-state that have agreed to take part.

"The uniquely Singapore part is we have a chance to expose ourselves to multicultural influences," says Mr. Pey. "We're a cross point between East and West."

The university has already selected its first class of students (82 said yes out of 119 who were admitted), mostly from Singapore, some of whom delayed starting college to wait for these doors to open. Eventually, an enrollment of 4,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students is expected; the university says it will meet a government requirement of admitting 20 to 30 percent of its students from abroad.

Government officials would not reveal the venture's exact price tag, but Chong Tow Chong, the provost, says the government is spending at least one billion Singapore dollars—about $771-million—to build the campus and hire professors from around the world. 

 Enlightened Self-Interest

Singapore chose MIT to collaborate in the new university after reviewing bids from several major institutions in the United States and Europe. For MIT, the draw was to upgrade its own curriculum, says Sanjay Emani Sarma, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering who directs its role in the collaboration.

"The most important reason is enlightened self-interest," he says. "Engineering education is evolving quite a bit right now. It's very dynamic. They can try out some things that sometimes it's harder for us to do because of our structure."

Mr. Sarma, who leads a team that is designing the new core curriculum, says its members have spent hundreds of hours at work. It's a chance to rethink what a modern engineer needs to know. The designers have dropped some math concepts and added others, for instance, and have applied research done at MIT's Teaching and Learning Laboratory. "This isn't some sort of pro-forma thing where we're just lending them our name," he says.

MIT plans to try out some of the new courses before exporting them to Singapore. Mr. Sarma will teach the first of those test classes at MIT, on transportation design, as early as next semester. "We're going to eat our own dog food," he says. "A lot of the classes we're developing for Singapore we will be using for MIT."

As many as 50 MIT professors will be involved in the collaboration, whether by teaching a course or two in Singapore or participating in joint projects with researchers there. Professors hired to teach full time in Singapore will first be sent to MIT for a year to absorb its culture and teaching methods.

Some students in the inaugural class say the MIT link was a key reason they chose to take a chance on the new university.

"I believe that the MIT lecturers have more experience and would be able to provide better insights into the field that I would be studying than the lecturers in the local universities," says Bryan Yap, who hopes to go on to design consumer electronics. He plans to take advantage of internships in the United States and China as well.

Leon Cher, an accepted student who hopes to become an architect, says the link to a Chinese university was just as important as the MIT connection.

One Saturday morning this summer, the provost, Mr. Chong, stopped by Mr. Cher's house to congratulate him on his acceptance and answer any questions. In fact, top officials of the university made the rounds to meet all of the admitted students. "I guess I was impressed by the effort made," Mr. Cher says. "And it is a privilege that will probably only be enjoyed by the pioneer batch."

The permanent campus, near the Singapore airport, will not open until 2014. For now, university administrators are focused on recruiting faculty members, which they see as key to success in building a reputation over time. Mr. Sarma, the MIT professor leading the collaboration, says he is more optimistic that the institution can pull it off than he was six months ago, when the hiring process began in earnest. "I'm now very confident that they have a critical mass," he says.

Singapore officials say they are comfortable bringing in a Western university to help get their new institution started. It has worked for them before. About 10 years ago, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School helped design Singapore Management University, which is now well established. Similar collaborations are under way. Yale University is working with the National University of Singapore to build a liberal-arts college, and Imperial College London is working with Nanyang Technological University to design its new medical school.

That strategy, officials say, helps Singapore achieve its goal of building a competitive work force. "We've got nothing else," says Cheah Horn Mun, director of educational technology in the Ministry of Education. Singapore has no natural resources and no farmland, so its "knowledge workers" are its most important asset, he says.

If the experiment works, the institution could end up offering a more up-to-date engineering curriculum than MIT. Mr. Sarma says he's not worried about being overshadowed by the new creation. "We don't mind people being ahead of us," he says. "Academia is all about sharing—and the fact of the matter is, we're always changing."


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