Hokkien, photography or food science? NUS students craft their own modules

The Art and Science of Photography module focused on the lesser known aspects of photography such as the properties of light (Photo: Seah Zong Long)

Final-year chemistry undergraduate Stephen Chew sought to create his own alchemy, blending his passion for photography and pursuit of science into a new module.

The avid shutterbug designed the Art and Science of Photography module, as part of the novel Design-Your-Own-Module (DYOM) programme that was launched in August 2019.

It focused on the lesser known aspects of photography such as origins of the craft and the properties of light.

“Photography’s reach has grown significantly over the years, so the idea is to allow students with or without prior knowledge to appreciate the science and mechanics of the camera,” he said.

An optional initiative, the DYOM programme encourages students to embrace the idea of self-driven learning by exploring subjects beyond their own disciplines.

They can do this either by signing up for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on the edX platform or by creating their own modules with the support of National University of Singapore (NUS) lecturers, administrative staff and industry leaders.

Stephen chose the latter. Working with NUS teaching staff, he formulated key learning objectives by focusing on creating hands-on learning experiences.

From engaging guest speakers to conducting field trips and workshops, the module encourages students to venture beyond the classroom.

“The beauty of the DYOM programme is that nothing is set in stone. Students are free to explore different areas and techniques,” he said.

From the upcoming academic year, which starts in August, students can take up to eight modular credits from their Unrestricted Electives Modules (UEM) to pursue subjects of their choice. The cap was previously set at four modular credits.

Students’ performances are marked on a “Completed Satisfactorily/Completed Unsatisfactorily” basis, and will not have any impact on their cumulative average point.

This allows them to focus on the learning process instead of the end result.

Nurturing lifelong learners

Associate Professor Erle Lim is driving the DYOM scheme, which was mooted by Professor Ho Teck Hua, NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost.

Associate Professor Lim, who is Vice Provost (Teaching Innovation & Quality), lauds the DYOM scheme’s ability to empower students and encourage them to view learning as a self-driven, lifelong endeavour.  

“The DYOM programme provides students with the freedom to pursue modules that can contribute to their personal or professional growth,” he said.

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For the module Dialects in Singapore: Hokkien, students took videos of themselves talking with their parents or grandparents in the dialect

It is not just the students who benefit. Teaching staff and mentors, too, have found the process enriching.

For instance, Mr Sew Jyh Wee was touched by the students’ work when he gave them an assignment for the module Dialects in Singapore: Hokkien earlier this year.

He had instructed them to take videos of themselves talking with their parents or grandparents in Hokkien. This, he hoped, would motivate the 41 students to learn the dialect.

He was right. Not only did they produce videos that were informative and insightful, the clips were also filled with tenderness. 

“Seeing students bridge generational gaps through the use of Hokkien was a priceless experience. Watching the smiles on the faces of their loved ones as they recalled past memories in Hokkien was equally rewarding,” said the lecturer at the NUS Centre for Language Studies.

“Here, it is not just a simple equation of teaching and learning. Rather, it is about creating learning journeys for students that are significant and emotively relevant.”

Keen students, happy staff

Allowing students to take charge of their learning process has shown positive results.

Associate Professor Lee Kooi Cheng, one of the lecturers in charge of the Art and Science of Photography module, is heartened by the students’ enthusiasm.

For example, even though the weekly classes are held in the evenings, there has been nearly full attendance so far.

Some students even stay back after lessons to clarify doubts or share insights with others.

“The approach is not top-down but learning-centric and student-centred,” said Associate Professor Lee.

“Some of the best moments of this programme are witnessing students taking ownership of their learning, their enthusiasm for learning and having the opportunity to partner the students in the learning process.”

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Students led workshops for the Chemistry of Food module

No limits to learning

For Dr Chong Yuan Yi, a lecturer from NUS Science, being part of the DYOM initiative also means being able to work with some of the best minds.

To create the Chemistry of Food module, he roped in two faculty staff members with a background in chemistry and food, as well as a librarian with a strong proficiency in chemistry to aid with research.

He also approached an educational specialist to help curate the educational assessment design.

The diversity of the team proved a huge success.

“We assembled a team of highly motivated staff and students to help make this possible. Collaboratively working towards a shared goal and spreading the workload made the process more manageable and enjoyable,” said Dr Chong.

Ultimately, the DYOM has shifted the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student.

Mr Seah Zi Quan, a Chemistry student who has since graduated, says working with his peers and helping to conduct workshops has given him a sense of ownership of the Chemistry of Food module.

“We also get to pick up more skill sets, like how to source for references and design quiz questions,” he added.

The warm reception to the scheme was what prompted NUS to raise the number of modular credits awarded for DYOM modules from four to eight starting this academic year.

For Mr Justin Chua who was part of the team that created the Dialects in Singapore: Hokkien module in August 2019, the move is an affirmation of DYOM as an effective learning tool.

“This course allowed me to meet friends from different majors and strengthen my knowledge of the Hokkien dialect so I’m very glad to see that future students will be able to benefit from this initiative as well, he said.


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