When we established Singapore University of Technology and Design from scratch in 2009, we had a unique opportunity – to reimagine higher education for the 21st century and a world that faces increasingly challenging multifaceted issues brought about by the fourth industrial revolution, rapid urbanisation, global warming and an ageing society, to name a few.
Unlike most universities, which have rigid departmental disciplines, the fundamental approach of SUTD – Singapore’s fourth public university, initially established in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is to break down silos and build curricula that bring together cross-disciplinary learning, cross-border learning experiences and human-centred engineering education.
Our undergraduate programme was developed from an outside-in approach; our first step was to ask what the world needed and then to develop four multidisciplinary pillars centred around products, systems and services – namely, engineering product development; engineering systems and design; information systems technology and design; and architecture and sustainable design.
Given the multidisciplinary curriculum, we recognise the importance of having a strong grounding in the fundamentals; thus we require all freshmen to go through a three-semester foundation year. This takes in not only science and mathematics courses but also an introduction to design that combines aspects of engineering and architecture, as well as two humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) courses in the context of design. In the third semester, students must integrate knowledge learned in the first two semesters to generate a full understanding of the physical world, the digital world and systems.
Our students continue to be exposed to the HASS curriculum in every semester of their pillar years, so that they acquire a comprehensive understanding of the world in which they will create, design and build. Whether developing a gadget, an app, an integrated online system or a city, awareness of the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of the world is crucial for future leaders and innovators.
As information and data are the currencies of today’s digital economy, we believe in equipping our students with a foundation in digital competency. Our curriculum has incorporated into the core requirements of each pillar probability and statistics, as well as an artificial intelligence-related subject in data analytics or machine learning. This will better prepare our students to contribute to the future of Singapore and the global economy in the era of the fourth industrial revolution.
SUTD places a great emphasis on developing students’ creative thinking, problem-solving, communication, social, emotional and teamwork skills, as well as fostering a mindset of continuous learning and entrepreneurship.
To achieve this objective, SUTD’s unique pedagogy is built around active, collaborative and experiential learning. For example, in the first three terms, students are grouped into cohorts of 50 in a community-learning environment, enabling them to build teamwork and to learn through peer-to-peer support from the first moment of their undergraduate studies. This is reinforced by requiring students to stay in halls of residence in the first year.
A huge element of SUTD’s curriculum is Big-Design, or Big‑D, where design permeates every aspect of student learning throughout the entire undergraduate programme. There are design projects for everyone, in every subject, across subjects and across pillar years. Through the design activities, students learn theoretical concepts in a hands-on manner that triggers concrete connections between concepts, between disciplines and between students and the real world. In the process, students acquire essential skills and attitudes in innovation, teamwork and communication. Every undergraduate will have worked on at least 20 design projects by the time they graduate.
Co-curricular activities, which we refer to as the Fifth Row, magnify the learning experience outside the classroom, providing opportunities for student self-expression, as well as leadership and entrepreneurship development. These activities include sports, performing arts, modules for writing, machining and fabrication, public service, public speaking, business activities, student government, research and more. We deliberately free up two half-days each week for students to pursue their passion, to encourage them to start their own clubs or interest groups.
Of course we prepare our students to be region-ready, able to take up any employment opportunity, but we also strongly believe in giving them a global exposure to help them to understand and appreciate the history, culture and economy of not just the region but the wider world. This is implemented through exchange programmes and internships with overseas institutions and employers. We aim to progressively increase the global opportunities so that all our students are able to enjoy at least one overseas experience before they graduate.
We regularly seek feedback on our curriculum through independent bodies such as accreditation and advisory boards made up of industry leaders and academicians to ensure that our programmes remain relevant to our stakeholders’ needs.
At SUTD, all students are required to complete an industry internship. Students undergo the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Programme (UPOP), which aims to prepare them for industry attachment and to make them career-ready. Through the practical and experiential sessions conducted by career advisers and professional consultants, students acquire relevant skills to help them navigate the graduate employment market.
Also testifying to SUTD’s strong connection with industry are the compulsory two-term Capstone projects, where multi-pillar student teams collaborate on real-world challenges presented by industry partners. Working with their industry mentors, the cross-discipline teams formulate holistic solutions and develop prototypes to address problems that are far from hypothetical.
More than ever it is vital that students continue learning and developing after they graduate, and we at SUTD are fully cognisant of the dynamic and rapidly changing work landscape. Thus, to support the Singapore government’s initiative to encourage skills development and lifelong learning, we have set up the SUTD Academy, which provides skills-based professional education and training courses to ensure that graduates can keep their skills and knowledge up to date in today’s innovation-intensive and technology-driven digital economy.
SUTD is also building a reputation as a thought leader in multidisciplinary education and research. We have received a growing number of accolades, including being listed in Clarivate Analytics’ 2017 State of Innovation report as the fifth-most influential scientific research institution in telecommunications. In a recent report titled The Global State of the Art in Engineering Education, which was commissioned by MIT, SUTD topped the list of emerging leaders in engineering education.
In our next phase of growth, we will build on our robust technology and design platform and create new strategic differentiation by designing and developing an innovation ecosystem and expanding our pervasive partnerships with industry, government, global universities and research institutions.
We will focus on developing a suite of integrated, multi-domain programmes with industry sectors in four key areas – healthcare; aviation; cities; and artificial intelligence/data science. This will ensure that SUTD continues to deliver a unique world-class university experience for our students. By equipping our students with multidisciplinary knowledge and problem-solving skills, as well as inculcating a mindset of lifelong learning, our aim is that every SUTD graduate will be industry-, region- and future-ready for an ever-evolving global economy.
Chong Tow Chong is president of the Singapore University of Technology and Design.