Asia Universities Summit: student creativity key, says KAIST head

Steve Kang says he wants to challenge East Asian 'uni-directional' tradition of education where students simply 'prepare for the test'

June 21, 2016
Steve Kang, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
Source: Wingsan Tsang
Steve Kang, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

The president of one of Asia’s leading universities aims to encourage creativity among students by challenging Confucian traditions of education.

Steve Kang, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), located in Daejeon, also has ambitious plans to attract more international staff as part of his drive to enhance creativity – and thinks including English on the city’s road signs could help.

KAIST was ranked 10th in the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2016, published this week as the inaugural THE Asia Universities Summit was held at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Professor Kang, a former chancellor of the University of California, Merced, said in an interview with THE at the summit: “At the moment, KAIST has an enormous challenge in terms of how best to prepare our students for their…careers in the future economic development of society in Korea.”

Watch: interview with Steve Kang

On the challenge of enhancing the creativity and innovation capacity needed to produce new jobs and industries, he continued: “So far education in general in Asia has been pretty much uni-directional education, meaning that professors come prepared, they give lectures; students listen carefully, then they study at home and prepare for the test.”

But Professor Kang, whose academic background is in computing and engineering, added that for “creativity nurturing” such a mode of education was “no longer effective”.

“Students need to have an in-depth dialogue and discussion with colleagues; through discussion they can come up with good ideas,” he said.

“The traditional Asian way of education, especially with deep-rooted Confucianism, discourages open discussions – they [students] want to be quiet rather than giving their opinions.

“There has to be some significant changes in the mode of education, how we run education programmes.”

Professor Kang also said: “Creativity hinges on diversity, diversity of culture, diversity of opinions, diversity of backgrounds, racial diversity.”

KAIST wants to attract higher numbers of international staff and students.

To do this, Professor Kang said that the institution would “need to make sure that international faculty on campus feel comfortable and feel appreciated. In turn, they will be the best ambassadors in recruitment of new international faculty members.”

That means making them feel comfortable “not only on campus but off the campus, in their living conditions”, he said.

He added: “I am working with the mayor of Daejeon – a big city, 1.5 million people – to make sure that all the signs and all the venues are friendly to international visitors, scholars and faculty members.”

The Asia Universities Summit – which was titled “How universities nurture creativity and innovation” – featured among its keynote speakers Thomas Rosenbaum, the president of the California Institute of Technology, and there has been much discussion of Caltech’s multidisciplinary model.

Professor Kang said: “The Caltech model, in terms of collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, it’s a matter of growing importance.

“We want to tear down all the walls between different academic disciplines so faculty can mingle together, exchange ideas.”

A new generation of young academics coming to KAIST, he believed, could “build up this sort of progress more effectively”.

In terms of his vision for the future of KAIST, Professor Kang said: “We are changing the way of teaching students. We set the core value of KAIST as creativity and challenge, so they do not have a fear of advancing their studies and learning in unexplored areas, so that they can be a creative workforce for the nation…and be effective global citizens in the science, technology and business world.”

He added that the institution also believes science and technology “need to make a contribution to address the worldwide challenging issues of environment, energy, poverty and peace and security”.

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