A Korean institution is helping to build our social, economic and pedagogic future, says Nam Pyo Suh
A modern research university deals with diverse issues in education and research to achieve two core aims: generating enlightened graduates who can cope with complex societal and human issues; and developing solutions to pressing problems.
Because research universities play important roles in economic growth, defence, the environment, communications, information technology, healthcare, public policies, food supply and other areas of vital concern, many countries are increasing their funding to help meet national needs. Such roles are likely to continue to develop, which will require a review of current educational and research paradigms.
The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has identified two vital research fields in which it should excel: energy, environment, water and sustainability; and healthcare, education and defence (although research initiated by individual professors will continue in other areas).
To maximise the impact of our work, KAIST has placed an emphasis on two ends of the research spectrum - basic research and technological innovation.
In addition to the basic sciences in which KAIST has made major contributions (materials, optics, biology and chemistry), it has also emphasised the field of complex-system design using theory-based approaches. Traditional analytical tools, long-time areas of excellence at KAIST, remain important as we innovate.
One of the major problems facing the world is climate change. To help reduce carbon emissions, KAIST has invented and deployed Olev, the On-Line Electric Vehicle, which receives its power wirelessly from underground cables. This energy propels the vehicle and is also stored in small on-board batteries to allow Olev to work on roads without the supply system.
Olev is operating in a Seoul park and at KAIST, and was presented at the 2012 World Expo in Yeosu. The system will be installed in other cities in the Republic of Korea and the US, and the 2013 World Economic Forum chose it as one of the world's 10 emerging technologies.
KAIST has also developed the mobile harbour, which eliminates the need to build large harbours for big container ships (such harbours can damage the environment, incur high costs and be prime targets for terrorism). The mobile harbour goes out to large container ships anchored in deep water, unloads their cargo and takes it to its final destination.
Both Olev and the mobile harbour were designed and deployed in just two years using theory-based system design.
KAIST is also home to Hubo the humanoid robot, which has been exported to many US universities.
The successful execution of such projects demonstrates that complex engineering systems should be designed and developed using a systematic approach that research universities must teach. Institutions should strengthen their educational programmes by adding courses in complex-system design, because most systems, technological and societal, are complex.
KAIST is also actively transforming pedagogy by replacing traditional courses with more learner-centric teaching that does not rely on formal lectures delivered by professors in classrooms. Students listen to lectures stored on the internet and come together in groups of six to solve problems. Teaching assistants provide help under the overall supervision of a professor.
The format promotes better collaboration and cooperation among students, who by a wide margin prefer this method (titled "I-4" for "IT-based, independent, internalised and -integrated" learning).
The university is also planning to use cyberspace technologies to put students from different countries into the same study groups. In this "cyber-class", KAIST students will solve problems in cooperation with peers who are physically sitting in other countries but are seeing and communicating in real time as if they were in the same room. This gives professors more time to create better teaching material and engage in interdisciplinary work.
KAIST has also introduced a system-design course for freshmen to develop their ability to think bimodally - to analyse and synthesise - early in the educational process.
Traditionally, most research universities have emphasised analysis rather than synthesis in many fields, including science and engineering. However, there is a need for research universities to teach and study the design and analysis of complex systems in subjects as diverse as science, technology, economics and political science. Even economic systems must be designed rationally and then analysed to optimise their functionality. The advances in the synthesis of complex systems must be complemented and supplemented with basic analytic knowledge, which has been the forte of most universities and will continue to require basic research.
Nam Pyo Suh is president of KAIST.
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