Curriculum changes to enhance focus on interdisciplinary learning and community projects

Incoming freshmen to NUS Engineering and NUS Design and Environment will be able to take courses from both schools seamlessly. These students will read a Common Curriculum which has been jointly developed by the two schools, and they will also be able to choose from new major-minor and double-major combinations that bridge the domains of engineering as well as design and the environment.

Part of the University’s expanding focus on developing interdisciplinarity and diversity, the change will give students greater flexibility to chart their NUS education and prepare them to excel in an ever-changing workforce.

“The two disciplines (engineering and design) are converging,” said Professor Ho Teck Hua, NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost. He noted that many of the complex problems in the world require knowledge from both fields.

“For example, if you want to build a net zero-energy building, it will involve sensors, it will involve the design and ambience being properly structured.”

Prof Ho also cited smart phones and electric vehicles as other examples of products where engineering and design converge.

“All this suggests that the two schools should get together. Graduates of the future should learn from both schools. In the Common Curriculum, we worked really hard to get the two schools to create modules that are relevant for the future.”

With that, the incoming freshmen - over 1,500 engineering students and some 330 students pursuing programmes in architecture, industrial design, landscape architecture as well as project and facilities management - will undertake a Common Curriculum. It will feature General Education modules, modules imparting engineering-design interdisciplinary skills, and an Integrated Project.

The Common Curriculum was developed by a task force comprising six industry leaders and 10 NUS academics. It included acclaimed urban planner and architect Dr Cheong Koon Hean, Chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities and a member of the NUS Board of Trustees; Mr Cheong Chee Hoo, CEO of DSO National Laboratories; and Professor Wong Mun Summ, Professor in Practice at the NUS Department of Architecture and Co-Founding Director of award-winning architectural practice WOHA.

“The way you connect to people is through form. Engineers have previously in the past been focused on function. We build capabilities, we build new technology. In the evolution of things, I think you need both,” noted NUS Engineering Dean Professor Aaron Thean.

“Bringing these two disciplines together is very important. It will also allow us to (develop) engineers that speak both languages. They can speak to designers, they can speak to other engineers. This forms a core unique capability of integrators, other than specialists. We need both for successful engineering projects.”

NUS Design and Environment Dean Professor Lam Khee Poh noted that although there is a preconceived notion of a separation between architecture design and engineering design, there was no such differentiation throughout most of human history. “We need to learn from that, to see how civilisations of the past have accomplished great breakthroughs. For example, the Renaissance period was the outcome of this synergy and this interdisciplinary work. To me, it’s an artificial divide between design and engineering. They should be integrated,” he said.

Students will be able to design their own education and prepare themselves for diverse career paths such as management consultancy, AI engineering, and med-tech entrepreneurship. Aspiring architects, industrial designers and built environment professionals will also be equipped with 21st century skills and be well-poised to create future-ready solutions.

The revised curriculum adds to NUS’ recent initiatives such as the setting up of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and shortlisting more students for admission to NUS Law.

Enhanced General Education curriculum

NUS has also announced a greater emphasis on service learning for the General Education curriculum, enabling about 7,000 incoming freshmen to contribute to community projects and gain a deeper appreciation of social issues.

The enhanced General Education curriculum will have a new pillar, Communities and Engagement. Students will learn about project management, community asset mapping, people management, and design thinking before putting these principles into practice, by participating in existing community engagement projects or designing their own projects.

Freshmen enrolling from Academic Year 2021/2022 onwards will need to take a module under this pillar. The modules will also be available to current students.

“A lot of our students have been involved in service learning for a while, and the goal of this new pillar, Communities and Engagement, is to scale up so that every student can be involved in community engagement. This is a big change, because it is about changing mindsets and getting our students to be engaged with the community. At the same time, we are hoping that this will inspire them to have a heart for the community,” said Prof Ho.

“While it’s a requirement that they take this module, there is a lot of choice and freedom,” he said, adding that students can choose which community they want to serve.

Students can explore topics such as climate change and environmental degradation; disadvantaged or marginalised groups; access to healthcare or education; caring for an ageing population; mental health and wellness; or food sustainability.

Communities and Engagement will form the sixth pillar under the General Education curriculum, with the others being Cultures and Connections; Singapore Studies; Critique and Expression; Data Literacy; and Digital Literacy.

Professor Bernard Tan, NUS Senior Vice Provost (Undergraduate Education), said that NUS students have for many years been undertaking projects to serve the community. The Communities and Engagement pillar will enable a learning component to be added to formalise the learning process, so that students can contextualise their efforts based on the learning objectives.

“When students get into NUS, we want to cultivate this quality of empathy in them, so that when they eventually become successful in life, it is not just about themselves and their families. It is also about serving the community,” said Prof Tan.

See press release.