HKUST programme aims to equip students with real-world skills
In their first semester at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, some students will be thrown in at the deep end. Every year between September and December, about 120 students are recruited to the Centre for Global and Community Engagement, where they undergo special training.
They take up extracurricular activities ranging from community engagement to local and international competitions. These aim to stretch their abilities, and equip them with soft skills, knowledge and practical experience way beyond the curriculum.
"We have a lot of different activities, and we encourage our students to try different things," says Dr Tim Woo Kam-tin.
Woo is associate professor of the engineering education department of electronic and computer engineering, and the centre's director.
"We embed these experiences into the learning experience of an outcome-led education. We hope to offer students a holistic personal development," he says.
This is sometimes life-changing, as it was for students who joined the international ABU Robocon 2014 competition. They won the local round, and went on to participate in the finals this month in Pune, India.
"After you join the competition, you become another person. You get all the technical skills, soft skills and develop a passion," says Michael Cheung Yu-pang, one of the few students who have remained with the team for a second year.
Designing, programming, coding and preparing the mechanical parts of two robots that have to be able to talk to each other requires excellent time management and teamwork.
During the long days, nights and weekends spent together working on the project, the team members became close friends and developed a common culture, although they are not all from Hong Kong. "The robotics team is like a family. Everybody communicates well, and we solve problems together," says student Pako Yam Pak-hin.
The students also spend a lot of downtime together. "We work hard but also have fun," says Yam.
Woo says he sometimes uses social occasions to talk to his students about resource management, logistics, and to get them to focus on developing their soft skills.
At the beginning, participants choose their goals, such as developing soft skills or mastering technology. At the end, there is an anonymous peer evaluation.
Cheung is on hand to mentor and guide them, and some second-year students also provide support, and prevent the team making time-wasting mistakes. They further benefit from networking and technological exchanges with other universities. "Although before the competition the Institute of Vocational Education and Chinese University were our enemies, after the competition we are exchanging ideas," says Cheung, noting that HKUST has won many awards at Robocon in the past four years.
Cheung says HKUST students have developed strong bonds with teams from Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the mainland. They have also arranged an exchange trip with a mainland university.
"We meet students from other cultures, explore how they work, and see what we can learn from them," he says.
This multidisciplinary project is very different from discipline-based university projects. "There is a much higher degree of freedom. The game is an open-ended question and you have to use innovative ideas," says student William Lee Wing-hang.
The students appreciate the practical experience this competition offers. Lee says it's possible to do programming theoretically, but then you don't know if it actually works.
"We can apply the knowledge from the lessons, join theory with practice. Without the use of a real robot we would never know if it works," he says.
Cheung adds that learning about the mechanical side of the project enables them to identify and solve problems. "Some problems are not taught in the textbooks," he says.
The team is made up of 16 or 17 people. Many come from engineering, but this year also included business and science students, who took the roles of treasurer, secretary, buyer and media officer.
Yam is excited about learning practical design skills, the logistics of finding materials, and dealing with time constraints and a limited budget.
"The team is set up like a mini company. You learn how to start an engineering business. You have management, your own design, and there is a human resources aspect, finance, and so on," Yam says. "This is a great experience if you want to work in management or set up your own company." The programme is a rebuke to employers who complain that fresh graduates have no idea about real-life work.
Supported by Hong Kong Cyberport Management, the Hong Kong Computer Society and the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, the competition has been held since 2004.
In other events or projects, students reach out to different departments within HKUST, and to professional institutes, make connections with students beyond campus, and engage with society in general.
They might hold a workshop for visually impaired children about building an underwater robot, cooperate with a speech therapist on an app for hearing-impaired children, or work with an NGO to develop an app that will help fundraising.
Global engagement is encouraged through regional and international competitions.
The most important aspect is developing a feeling of camaraderie to make the students feel secure.
Teaching assistant Eric Leung Chun-yin, who acts as a mentor, says: "The key word is family. We would like to bring students together, like in a family - no matter which group you have joined, come and support the others."