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BY Corinna Wu

A Sharper Edge

A SHARPER EDGE

Staking its future on innovation, Singapore seeks to train more - and better - engineers.


Singapore - This may be a small country, but when it comes to research and development, it's thinking big. Witness Fusionopolis, a trio of gleaming, high-rise towers housing state-of-the-art labs for 2,400 scientists and engineers - plus offices, a gym, restaurants, shops, a theater, and three floors of posh loft apartments.

Opened in 2008, Fusionopolis is one of two anchors within one-north, a 500-acre, multibillion-dollar live-and-work habitat of science and technology research clusters developed with a competitive eye on the global economy. Named for the island's latitude - one degree north of the equator - one-north captures in its planning and architecture Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's vision of an "integrated innovation ecosystem." Sky bridges carry Fusionopolis's scientists and engineers between towers. Pink buses shuttle them to and from a second, older anchor, Biopolis, a biomedical research hub of angular buildings emblazoned with big-lettered names like Matrix, Genome, Nanos, and Proteos.

singapore
The green-roofed School of Art, Design and Media
at Nanyang Technological University gives form to Singapore's ambition.

Singapore's bold foray into R&D is relatively recent. From the 1960s through the 1990s, its export-led economy prospered by developing skilled labor and manufacturing expertise for thriving electronics, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries. But by the turn of the 21st century, the government had concluded that the city-state's future success depended on knowledge and innovation. The official Agency for Science, Technology and Research, known as A*STAR, launched a rapid, costly drive to develop research centers and expand its pool of foreign and homegrown talent. Midway through a five-year, $4.9 billion (U.S.) science and technology plan, it opened Biopolis, aiming to turn Singapore into a global center of biomedical research. The latest five-year S&T plan doubles the previous budget, to $10 billion. Already devoting 3 percent of its gross domestic product to R&D, outpacing the United States, Singapore aims to increase its investment to 3.5 percent in the next five years. The country's track record suggests this will happen. Known for capable administration and stable, if strict, rule by the dominant People's Action Party, Singapore weathered the latest worldwide economic slump better than many other countries.

The policy shift created a huge need for engineers and scientists, placing new demands on Singapore's educational system. Although Singapore aggressively recruits foreign researchers and many of its students pursue education abroad, it recognizes that it must also expand and improve its own training, which for engineers occurs either at one of five three-year polytechnics, culminating in a diploma, or at a degree-granting four-year university.

While Singapore strengthens its polytechnics with help from institutions abroad, the island's two major research universities - Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore - are adapting their curricula and teaching to meet what they see as the 21st century's requirements.

Occupying a hilly campus on the western end of the island, close to Singapore's industrial and manufacturing centers, NTU enrolls 31,000 students, 16,000 of them in the engineering school. "We're one of the largest engineering schools on a single campus," says Pan Tso-Chien, dean of NTU's college of engineering. Traditionally, NTU's curriculum hewed closely to the demands of industry. For example, the largest department is electronics and electrical engineering, with nearly 190 faculty members and 5,000 students, which reflects Singapore's strength in microelectronics.

In 2007, NTU's president, Su Guaning, convened a blue-ribbon commission of trustees, alumni, faculty, students, and industry representatives for what was billed as a "bottom-up, no-holds-barred" review of the university's undergraduate program. The aim was to ensure that NTU's students were getting breadth as well as depth in their education, something Su alluded to in his convocation address that year. Stressing the importance of lifelong learning to meet rapidly changing demands, he said the school seeks to instill in its students "a sense of adventure, entrepreneurship, and leadership" as they keep pace with the latest advances in technology.

The commission's recommendations amounted to creating a liberal arts engineering college, Pan says. They called for a less demanding course load - four four-unit courses each semester instead of six three-unit courses. Core requirements are being reduced, allowing students time to pursue more electives. New, interdisciplinary courses combine engineering and business, such as innovation management.

Pan says the curriculum had served students well in the past but needed to change. "To be successful in the future, we have to start looking at engineering for the future, and future industry may not look like what was past," he says. "We have to look at the attributes of our engineers, who should be strong in their core discipline but at the same time should be able to work on the boundary between engineering and finance, engineering and science, engineering and medicine. That way, they can operate in a very complicated, sophisticated financial environment, business environment, industrial environment."

singapore buildingsFusionopolis is a center of Singapore's drive to
become a leader in research and development.

A Unique Role

The National University of Singapore, with about 6,000 engineering undergraduates and 2,500 graduate students, takes a somewhat different approach to meeting the nation's R&D challenge. When Chan Eng Soon became dean of engineering in April 2008, he pondered a key question: "The engineers that we groom -- how competitive are they in this globalized economy?" China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong all have strong engineering schools and collectively produce millions of engineering graduates each year. "With that kind of landscape, what are the roles of graduates from Singapore?" he asks.

Since Singapore has a good track record of looking at integrated solutions, the faculty of engineering decided to build on that strength. "We want our students to have some ability to look at complex issues at an integrated system level," Chan says. The upshot was a new design-centric engineering curriculum targeting about a hundred students who want to pursue an alternative path to their degree.

The curriculum focuses on three broad themes: engineering in medicine, smart cities, and future transportation systems. Students work in interdisciplinary teams and take on a project that will run through their four years at NUS. It's designed to excite students about engineering and relate it to what society needs, Chan says. What's more, he adds, working with students from different departments mimics what happens in real life. Many multinational companies are based in Singapore, so NUS appreciates the extent to which engineering projects draw on global teams.

A pilot program this first year, the design-centric curriculum will evolve as time goes on. "We have to learn from the students and learn with the students to come up with a good approach," Chan says. The engineering faculty eventually hopes to have about one third of their undergraduates participating. "We still want them to learn those engineering principles but getting them to do all that within the context of the thematic problem," Chan says. "Having a thematic platform helps the students to stretch their imaginations."

World Connections

Singapore's international outlook and cosmopolitan character make it well positioned to groom engineers for global markets and collaboration. Situated at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula along a heavily used shipping corridor, it has one of the world's busiest ports. About a fourth of its 4.6 million residents comes from somewhere else. English is one of four official languages, along with Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Singaporeans find it natural to send students overseas for at least part of their training.

At NTU, most engineering students spend one or two semesters overseas, studying at universities in China, Japan, the United States, and Europe. The NUS Global Engineering Program offers students an accelerated path to getting a bachelor's, and, master's degree in four years. They spend three years at NUS to get a bachelor's degree, spending at least one semester at a partner university in another country. Then they spend their fourth year at a partner institution for their master's.

Global Forum in Singapore
Global Forum in Singapore

A weeklong World Engineering Education Forum, opening October 17 in Singapore, will provide a platform for ASEE and four partner organizations to tackle the major challenges in the education of global engineers for the 21st century.

Coinciding with ASEE's annual Global Colloquium will be the first full conference of the Global Engineering Deans Council, the annual summit of the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies, the Global Student Forum, and the biennial conference of the International Association for Continuing Engineering Education.

Government officials and academic leaders from a number of countries are expected to address such global grand challenges as finding sustainable energy sources and ensuring abundant and safe water supplies. They will also explore R&D partnerships between universities and industry, compare and advance best practices for preparing future innovators in a global economy, and consider ways of leveraging the collective capabilities of engineering educators.

The main headquarters for all the conferences will be the new Marina Bay Sands resort, which includes convention facilities, 60 restaurants, a casino, theaters, and a museum. Additional sessions will be held at the National University of Singapore, which has played a leading role in planning the forum.

Further details will be posted on the forum website, www.weef2010.org.


But without an increase in doctoral candidates, Singapore still wouldn't become a world R&D capital. A*STAR set a goal to produce 1,000 doctorates from local talent and established the A*STAR Graduate Academy in 2001. The academy funds a student's education from a bachelor's degree through a Ph.D. at universities in Singapore, Europe, and the United States. Currently, 880 students are A*GA scholars, and 40 percent are studying physical sciences and engineering.

A*STAR spends $ US 560,000 to $630,000 on each student, a significant investment that it is eager to recoup. So part of the condition of the scholarship is a "bond." After they complete their degree, students are required to work for six years at A*STAR, applying for any of the jobs available. Most go into research, but now there is the option to work in administrative positions, such as in corporate communications.

In part, the generous scholarship support is meant to overcome Singaporeans' reluctance to pursue careers in science and engineering research. For many years, the top students gravitated to medicine, business, and law. "R&D is not a traditional area for Singapore, so we've had to work very hard to convince young, bright Singaporeans that they can look at science as a career," says Timothy Sebastian, deputy executive director of the A*GA. And parents, who have a strong influence on their children's career choices, had to be convinced that Singapore had jobs in those fields. "I don't think any parent now would question that R&D is a viable career," he adds.

The final prong in Singapore's R&D quest is its willingness to form partnerships with institutions overseas. As a result, the number of existing universities offering engineering degrees on the island will soon double. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is collaborating with Singapore to open the Singapore University of Technology and Design in 2011. Also, the Ministry of Education announced the formation of the Singapore Institute for Applied Technology, which will administer degree programs offered by foreign universities to students in the polytechnics.

Rebounding from recession, Singapore stands to post an annual growth rate of 4.9 percent this year and next, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit forecast, comfortably beating the world average. If it's a rosy scenario, it's one that leaders here refuse to take for granted.


Corinna Wu is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif. She spent a month at A*STAR as a science writer-in-residence.

 

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