A Class Of Their Own: Of computers and connections
In this series, NUS News profiles the outstanding educators who have inspired generations of students at the University.
Having a conversation with Associate Professor Soo Yuen Jien from the NUS School of Computing is almost like chatting with the resident uncle in one’s neighbourhood – there is an instant ease, and conversation and laughter flow easily. It is no wonder that he is known as Uncle Soo to his students and colleagues, although the moniker hadn’t originally come about because of his easygoing nature.
“This name came about maybe ten years ago, when my first son was born. I started it as a reminder to myself that I was no longer a youngster, and that I needed to take more responsibility,” Assoc Prof Soo chortles, laughing heartily. “So I asked my students to call me Uncle Soo. And somehow it just stuck, to an interesting level now.”
Origin stories aside, the moniker “Uncle Soo” is arguably as good a representation of Assoc Prof Soo’s personality as it is of his status as a father to two boys. The affable educator, who is Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science, is beloved for his down-to-earth manner and approachability – as aptly encapsulated by a recent student comment: “Explains like a poet. Friendly like uncle.” (It was, not incidentally, his favourite feedback of the semester.)
Assoc Prof Soo’s ability to engage his students, as well as his passion for teaching, has seen him earn numerous recognitions over two decades of practice as an educator. These include the Outstanding Educator Award in 2018, NUS’ highest recognition for teaching, as well as the Honour Roll for the Annual Teaching Excellence Award and the Faculty Teaching Excellence Award, having won both over multiple years.
Assoc Prof Soo’s classes can be described as a finely honed balancing act, the result of intense behind-the-scenes planning and content creation, brought to life in an engaging manner that encourages participation. The latter, while seemingly effortless, is something that he takes pains to create.
When classes were moved online in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, Assoc Prof Soo decided to help his students feel connected by designating the Zoom chat as their private space to talk about anything under the sun, one which he promised not to look at. Serious questions were to be posted on a separate online platform, Archipelago, which he had created in 2016 as a live interaction platform for large classes, and that has seen more than 300,000 student users to date.
He would also start his online lectures 15 minutes early, getting his students to doodle on the slides as they pleased. This approach unearthed not a few surprises, he reflects, including a Pikachu that would make a guest appearance at every lecture. “After a while, we realised there was an artist among us – everyone was in awe and we would just stop drawing and watch him draw,” he shares with a laugh.
The light-heartedness of such an experience, which some might dismiss as mere frivolity, is perhaps the very thing that distinguishes Assoc Prof Soo’s lessons. To him, interaction is the only thing that stops online lectures from devolving into mere recordings.
“I think we actually recaptured the feeling of interacting in a classroom,” he reflects. “This was really memorable because it was probably the first time in the COVID situation that I found that I really reconnected with the students. As instructors, we tend to just think about how we’ve lost contact with the students, but we forget that the students have also lost contact with each other.”
While they sound fun, Assoc Prof Soo’s lessons and assessments can also be notoriously difficult, for a simple reason: he strives to go beyond imparting knowledge, seeking to nurture higher-order thinking skills instead. “One comment from my student that I remember is ‘The only thing I don’t like is that your mid-term feels like an IQ test’,” he chuckles, sharing that one of his greatest challenges lies in designing a proper question that tests one’s thinking process.
Besides his examinations, Assoc Prof Soo’s lessons are labours of love as well, with much time going into their planning. “All this is unseen,” he observes plainly. Despite his years of experience lecturing, he still needs four to five hours to prepare for a two-hour lecture.
Mr Sriram Sami, Assoc Prof Soo’s former student, attests to the painstaking effort put in by the dedicated educator. “Whenever possible, he tries to use live demonstrations of concepts despite the difficulty of doing so. In fact, I can still remember (almost four years later!) those live demos. He definitely had to practice them, because live demos aren’t easy to pull off, and that effort is clearly visible,” Mr Sami says, adding that Assoc Prof Soo’s teaching style has influenced his own career as an educator.
As Assoc Prof Soo recalls the various episodes that have influenced his path – from being exposed to coding in an enrichment class when he was 9, to being inspired by his PhD supervisor – his love for computer science is palpable. “I was just fascinated that you had to solve a problem and once you figured out how to do it, you could instruct the computer to do the hard part for you,” he says as he recalls his first brush with computing.
Today, Assoc Prof Soo derives enjoyment from sharing this passion for computer science with his students. He describes it as a positive feedback loop – when he sees his students become curious and interested in computer science, it reinforces his own enjoyment of the topic, which in turn helps him to teach it better and keeps him going.
“You have seen a world that you want to share with others, and when you see the light go on for them, there is a sense of satisfaction.”
This is the ninth instalment of a series on outstanding educators at NUS.
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.