A Class Of Their Own: Engineering the self
In this series, NUS News profiles the outstanding educators who have inspired generations of students at the University.
“Doing my best for my students—it’s natural. It’s what we should do as ordinary human beings, that’s one thing. And secondly, teaching is a higher calling; this is what any teacher should do.”
With these words, Associate Professor Lakshminarayanan Samavedham of NUS Engineering modestly waves away any semblance of praise for his pedagogical achievements. Radiating an easy, down-to-earth affability, his unassuming demeanour belies a strength of conviction when it comes to his personal mission to equip his students with the hard and soft skills they need to thrive amid the vagaries of the volatile, dynamic workplace.
Nurturing independent learners
Acutely aware of the widening gap between education and industry, and armed with a long-term vision, he strives to pique students’ curiosity, instilling in them the willingness and ability to perform independent, just-in-time learning, as opposed to just-in-case learning.
“What matters is how we can get students to learn something on their own,” he explains. “Today, the fields are moving very rapidly. The end-point keeps changing, because new tools like machine learning are being developed all the time. The latest should be taught so that students can contribute to the profession from day one.”
To that end, Prof Laksh makes a point of keeping his lectures relevant and up-to-date by marrying methodology and application. Even as he teaches modelling, programming, and statistical methods, he introduces real-life industrial problems that transcend the chemical engineering sector to include a plethora of multidisciplinary themes, like environmental sustainability, physiology, and finance. Besides tapping on his prior industry experience working at the Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation, he is constantly on the lookout for pertinent industry issues that he reads about in academic papers, or hears about from ex-students in the industry.
“A lecturer can only go so far,” he asserts. “My philosophy is that people learn by actually doing stuff.”
He is also an avid proponent of training students to not just linger at the level of basic procedural knowledge, but push themselves to operate in their “discomfort zones”. Citing the Bloom’s Taxonomy, he stresses that the future will see advanced machine learning take over base-level functions of memory-recall and automation, rendering human labour obsolete.
“People have to migrate towards higher levels of creativity and thinking, at least until the artificial intelligence machines catch up to us; it’s an endless race,” he says. For him, it is the responsibility and challenge of the teacher to bring students willingly to the higher levels, where the productive struggle forges resilient, independent problem-solvers.
“What gives me satisfaction is that students learn. There is nothing happier for a teacher than to see students excelling at a subject, to recognise the mind-boggling distance they have travelled to exceed you.”
Breaking the mould
Prof Laksh also incorporates numerous technological innovations in his classroom to facilitate learning, even as he maintains the human dimension of the teaching process by motivating and encouraging his students. For example, believing that people should be able to learn anytime, anywhere, he was among the first to practise the now-widespread Flipped Classroom approach, recording his lectures through PowerPoint voiceovers. He has also taken the unorthodox approach of presenting students with hands-on black box experiments and cutting-edge computational tools to decipher and control the unknown systems within.
Indeed, Prof Laksh’s legacy manifests in his students who go on to make a difference in the lives of others, a glowing testament to his influence. Having studied under him at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, Dr Suraj Vasudevan, himself now a Senior Lecturer in NUS Faculty of Engineering, has followed in his mentor’s footsteps.
“Prof Laksh has always been one of my favourite educators,” he says. “He is extremely organised, knowledgeable, dedicated, and passionate about teaching, and his energy coupled with his eloquence instantly makes his classes lively and interesting. Sustaining student attention is a big challenge in teaching, and Prof Laksh is a master in this.”
Further attesting to the impact Prof Laksh has had on his own pedagogical philosophy, Dr Vasudevan elaborates, “Many of the current ‘in things’ in pedagogy like student engagement, active learning and meaningful assessment— he already had in his classes. I have learnt many things from him that I practise in my teaching: bringing in the context when teaching something so that students appreciate what they are learning it for, challenging students to think and apply what they learn, not compromising on what we teach no matter how difficult the content is.”
Engaging with student life
The excellence of Prof Laksh’s teaching and his knack for building rapport with his students is echoed in his capacity as the founding Master of Residential College 4. Ever candid, he does not shy away from discussing the difficulties he has faced along the way, such as the initial challenges in connecting with students.
Besides being a vegetarian, which meant he could not partake in food-based bonding activities like steamboat dinners, his hope for quality interactions with students in the dining hall did not materialise.
“Sometimes I feel my ageing has played a role,” he admits with a wistful smile. “Now with all this grey hair, I might not appear as relatable as I was twenty years ago.”
“In many ways, I was alone,” he muses. “As the Master of RC4, the whole college is under my care, but meeting students in other environments was difficult for me.”
To overcome this, Prof Laksh sought out other avenues to forge a personal connection with students. He found the answer in sports, a personal passion of his. Dropping by the sports hall on a nearly daily basis to watch practice matches and chat with students, he discovered that sports was a touchpoint that furnished him with a holistic, multidimensional view of students at work and at play.
“Going to RC4, I met students from various departments with lots of interesting skillsets and outlooks on life, which allowed me to understand modern students in their entirety,” he marvels. “If I were in the Department, I would not see this side of students—students come, learn some equations, and go. But here I got the chance to listen to their aspirations and hopes, and this is what I found—talented individuals with lots of energy and diverse interests, and who care deeply about society.”
Stephanie Lauw, an ex-student whom he taught at RC4, fondly recalls the effort Prof Laksh put in in establishing personal relationships with residents. “With leaders like him building the community, it cemented the warmth of staying in a new residential college. I recall Laksh popping by our theatre and music rehearsals after dinners— it's these casual but intentional drop-bys that he invests his time in, over formal meetings, that have a lasting impact on RC4 residents.”
Engineering the self
It comes as no surprise, then, that Prof Laksh has bagged numerous teaching awards over the years, including the Engineering Educator Award, NUS Outstanding Educator Award, Bronze Award for Innovative Teaching, and Annual Teaching Excellence Award. His passion for pedagogy also manifests in his various capacities as the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CDTL), a Fellow of the Teaching Academy, and currently the Director of the Institute for Applied Learning Sciences and Educational Technology (ALSET).
And yet, for all his accolades, he brings a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humour to the conversation, harbouring a mindset of interminable self-engineering to become the best teacher he can be.
“For me, there's always this idea of continuous improvement, either because of student feedback or other educators’ best practices,” he says. “I've done well but could I do better? Am I always able to plan the next step? Am I able to correct my mistakes? Am I able to sleep well at the end of the day, knowing that I couldn’t have done any better than what I did today?”
“I don’t know what you are going to make out of all this garbled stuff,” he concludes with a rueful chuckle as the interview comes to a close. “But I really wanted this to be a very open chat; I will not hesitate to mention the problems and challenges that I’ve had, I don’t mind, really.” And it is in this spirit of candidness, humility, and an unrelenting desire to improve his pedagogy that he continues to inspire multiple generations of students.
This is the sixth instalment of a series on outstanding educators at NUS.
Read about how Dr Clayton Miller from the NUS School of Design and Environment empowers students by giving them opportunities for exposure and strives to nurture forward-thinking visionaries and trailblazers.
Read about Dr Susan Ang Wan-Ling from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as she shares her experiences teaching English Literature, and her hopes and dreams for students as they move through life.