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Singaporean Engineering Students Can Do “X”

ne of the many blessings in my life has been my ability to travel to and work in Singapore. I love Singapore’s energy, its rapid growth and accomplishments, the boldness of its aspirations, its sheer human diversity per square millimeter. I relish returning to Changi Airport, to stroll among the young people walking in West Coast Park after dark, to its colorful food markets, its busy streets, and the sophistication of its night scene. I enjoy hearing the diverse views of taxi drivers about politics and the economy and business. And underneath, I feel a gentleness of spirit that is as attractive as it is personally calming. These words are perhaps a strange way to start an article on engineering education, but I share these feelings, in part because I want to talk about the role of feelings and emotional variables, more generally, in the transformation of engineering education, but also because I want readers to understand that I know I have only begun to scratch the surface of Singapore, that my understanding of her is of a meager and cursory kind, that I have so much more to learn and experience in order for me to be considered “Singapore-educated” in any meaningful way.

I also write these words because I am keenly aware that Singapore’s history is full of outsiders – many of them Westerners – coming to its shores and telling it what to do – sometimes by force – often in very specific ways. Given this history, I want it understood that my words are not “orders” – they do not even constitute proper advice. Rather, because I have been privileged and blessed to be able to listen to your sons and daughters in a way that is quite compelling, I want to share what I’ve heard from some of Singapore’s brightest young people in ways that might be helpful in thinking about educational reform and transformation. I’ll start by telling a short story of how I came to Singapore and in what context.


Goodbye UIUC, Hello NUS

For over twenty and a half years, I was a faculty member in engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Starting about 5 years ago, I started to visit Singapore in connection with the Singapore-Delft Water Alliance, and several years ago, I started to interact with Dean Chan Eng Soon and others at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on the need to enhance engineering education to attract more young people to engineering.

Going back to 2007, I had been involved in the start-up of the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education ( at the UIUC, and that work led to the establishment of a partnership, the Olin-Illinois Partnership, with the innovative Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering ( That work came to a head when Dean Chan and faculty members from NUS attended the April 2009’s Summit on the Engineer of the Future 2.0 (EotF2.0) at Olin College. Subsequent visits to UIUC and iFoundry by a NUS delegation led to my becoming a visiting faculty member at NUS following my retirement from UIUC on 31 December 2010 at about the time I launched the consulting, training, and coaching firm, ThreeJoy Associates, Inc. (


Singaporean Engineering Students Don’t Do “X”

In coming to Singapore, my assignment from Dean Chan was to work with the Design-Centric Curriculum (DCC), a bold effort to inculcate excitement and modern design thinking in an integrated way across the curriculum. In my first visits, I spent much time observing the program and staff to try understanding the curriculum and program design.

One thing that surprised me in those initial discussions was some of the things my NUS colleagues told me about Singaporean engineering students. Oftentimes, I was told something similar to the following: “Dave, you need to understand something. You’re not in the United States anymore. You’re in Singapore, and Singaporean students aren’t like Americans. They don’t do “X,” where “X” is the particular thing that Singaporean students supposedly don’t or aren’t capable of doing. For example, I was told that Singaporean engineering students aren’t curious, they don’t answer questions, they don’t ask questions, they can’t talk about emotions, they aren’t creative and so on and so forth across a litany of supposed inadequacies and incapacities.

Being an outsider, I was sensitive to my role at NUS, but a part of me was curious to observe Singaporean students for myself to see if they really don’t do “X”. The remainder of this article tells 3 stories of what I have found.


Singaporean Students Do Answer Questions

Over recent years, my style in the classroom has shifted from traditional lectures to a more Socratic question-and-answer style, and I was warned by my colleagues at NUS not to expect too much in the classroom with Singaporean engineering students when you ask questions. “They are shy.” “They don’t answer questions.” “They will sit in silence,” I was told, and so, with the help of Vice Dean Ashraf Kassim, I set out to find out whether this was so. In particular, on 11 August 2011, he and I started a series of large-classroom pilot seminars for first-year engineering students titled, Mastering the Missing Basics of Engineering with the first session on Noticing, Listening, and Questioning. It was held in Lecture Theatre 5 at NUS and about 200 students showed up.

The first part of the session was on the power of awareness and noticing, and we started with the whole class standing and performing a Qigong exercise to increase mindfulness and focus on the work ahead. Thereafter, the students paired up and were requested to tell each other stories about what they noticed during their previous day. In the exercise, one student tells a story, they switch and the other person tells a story. Thereafter, the class comes together and is debriefed by asking teams to report back and answer the following question: What did you notice about your noticing?

This can be a challenging exercise, even for adult participants, because it requires the participant (1) to be aware of what happened over the course of a day and (2) reflect and identify abstract patterns from the noticing that the person has shared. Much to the surprise of my NUS colleagues, the NUS freshmen were excellent at answering questions. Moreover, they were brilliant noticers, and very articulate ones. For example, they noticed that emotionally salient events were easier to remember than others. They noticed that people and things closer to them were easier to recall than others. Some students noticed that their noticing was subpar that particular day because they were preoccupied with an exam or an assignment.

I remember thinking to myself that this one episode effectively puts the lie to a number of assessments; “Singaporean engineering students don’t answer questions,” “Singaporean engineering students aren’t reflective,” and “Singaporean engineering students aren’t articulate in spoken language” all fell as even remotely interesting working hypotheses that afternoon.


Singaporean Engineering Student Do Emotions

On another occasion, I was asked to hold discussions with first-year students in the DCC to help them understand their underlying motivations and purpose in life so that they could pick first-year projects. In discussing this with some of the DCC staff, it came out that project selection was believed to be difficult, in part because “students from Singapore have a hard time talking about their passions.”

Over the course of 2 weeks in January 2011, I interviewed 14 students in a total of 5 sessions, ranging in size from one-on-one to five students. Thinking back, I recalled that at first, students talked about their projects in fairly superficial terms. But as the conversations went on, it became clear that Singapore’s engineering students are actually quite good at “doing” emotions.

One particular session stuck out in my mind. A student from India in particular had selected a project having to do with food. I asked him, “What is it that interests you about food?” He answered that working on food would help others. I said that that was laudable and continued to probe, “What is it about food that matters to you personally?” It took a few more questions, but it turned out that this student’s grandfather had been a farmer, and there had been a famine, and life was very hard for his family. His hope for working on food was to work on something that would eliminate famine and hardship for others. It was clear from the session and others that Singaporean engineering students are very able to reflect on their emotions and motivations. A number of my DCC colleagues sat in on these sessions, and I believe it is fair to say that they were surprised by how quickly and how much students can reveal about emotions and passions when they are asked and listened to.


Singapore Students Want to Dare

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to Be Great

In February 2012, I was blessed to visit Hwa Chong Institution, one of the top high schools in Singapore and in the world. I was asked to address some students from Hwa Chong as well as the Nanyang Girls’ High School nearby. Earlier that day, I had been briefed about Hwa Chong and I remember being shown a video clip from a government minister (a Hwa Chong graduate of course), who asserted that “Singaporeans don’t dare to be great. They aspire to the comfort of the 85th percentile.” I was taken aback by this claim, and I didn’t think anything more about it until the question-and-answer period following my talk.

The topic of my talk was, Presence and Effectuation: Two Complementary Ways of Being for the Servant Leader in a Creative Era and I mainly engaged the 9th and 10th grade students (15 and 16-year-olds) about leadership presence as authentic connections with another and presence to the moment as a way to making better decisions, especially career decisions. My Hwa Chong colleagues were a little nervous that I was engaging the students in such a large class interactively without powerpoint slides (Singaporean high school students don’t answer questions?), but it went quite well with the students asking and answering in thoughtful ways about a number of leadership issues. This continued for some time, and then we went into Q&A.

I started high in the back of the auditorium and there were a number of straightforward questions, which I answered in a straightforward fashion, but as I came down the auditorium steps toward the front, a question from a young woman stopped me in my tracks. In particular, she asked the following question:


”How do you learn to have the courage
to be present as a leader?”

I smiled, and then a shiver ran down my spine. I knew, in that moment, what a beautiful question it was. I gave an answer (something having to do with the biological basis of fear and how it can be an overreaction to the threats we face in the modern world), but as I reflected on this young woman’s question, I pondered its implications for Singapore engineering education and education transformation in general.

First, it seemed that the question was a kind of an answer to the minister who asserted that Singaporean students don’t dare to be great. Extrapolating from her question, the young questioner’s reply to the minister might have been something like: “No, we dare to be great, but how do we learn the courage to do so, and how can you change the culture of our education system to make this crucial learning a higher priority?”

Second, it seemed that the young woman’s question put the key issue on the table. Although, I didn’t answer it in this way at the time, all the programs that are successful in unleashing students to pursue learning through their passion do so by trusting them to take action, to make decisions, to fail, to learn, and to take action again.

In other words, the key ingredients in the chain that lead to authentic learning is for (a) teachers to trust their students, (b) for the students to believe they are trusted, (c) for students to take action based on that trust, and (d) to learn and discover how to learn from both the failures and successes of that messy process. Put differently, an answer to the young woman might have gone as follow:


“You learn courage from those who have
the courage to let go, who trust in you, and who are present to you as you discover and explore.”

And in this conclusion, I believe, lies the key to the transformation of engineering education in Singapore (and everywhere else).


Believing Singaporean Students Can Do “X”

In short, what I think I’ve learnt in my brief time in Singapore is two-fold. First, Singaporean students can do “X”. They answer questions. They are articulate. They aspire to greatness. They do emotions. And so on and on and on. In short, the best and the brightest in Singapore are great kids who are world class in every way. Second, what these great kids can do is severely underestimated by a broad swatch of exactly those people who are charged with the students’ education. This may sound a bit harsh, but I want to be clear that I’m not singling out my Singaporean colleagues as unique in this regard. In the US, I think it is fair to say that my colleagues severely underestimate what American kids can do. My colleagues in Europe, my colleagues in South America, you name it. Engineering professors all over the world underestimate what their students can do. And in this common thread, is the magic of the way out.

The way to transform engineering education in Singapore and everywhere else in the world is to really believe in our students, to trust them, and then unleash them so they can show us what they can do. This is easy to say. It is less easy to do, but we can learn how to do it, both as individuals and organizationally. The way to start begins with two easy steps.

First, we must learn how to listen to our students, not for the “right” answer but for the answers they have. And to avoid questions with “right” answers, we must learn to ask open-ended questions, questions that cause our students to really think and reflect. These two steps, (1) active listening and (2) open-ended questioning are easy enough to learn, but the crucial point here is that they are keystone habits that can take step by trusting and trusted step, thereby leading to a culture that really believes in and unleashes our students to pursue their hopes and dreams with courage and confidence.

Learning how to take these steps is easy, but the hard part goes back to my answer to the crucial question asked at Hwa Chong Institution. Do we have the courage to let go and believe in our young people, so that they can learn the courage to tackle our planet’s many challenges? I believe that our answer to this question is the dividing line between effective transformation and failed reform, and the choice is in our hands. No, actually, the choice is in our hearts.



I thank Dean Chan Eng Soon for his trust and support, and his Deputy, Lim Seh Chun for his stewardship of the DCC. I am grateful to my NUS partners in crime, Ashraf Kassim and Tham Ming Po, as well as my DCC colleagues for pushing me to think carefully about differences in my home culture and theirs. I am grateful to NUS for giving me a home away from home following my retirement from UIUC. I also thank Ray Price and Karen Hyman at the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education for continuing stimulating conversations on the challenges of education transformation. I am grateful to Rick Miller, Mark Somerville, Sherra Kerns, Jon Stolk, and my other colleagues at Olin College for enabling the scales to fall from my eyes starting in late 2007.

Originally posted in Innovation Magazine on September 9th, 2012.

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