Dean's Message
Fall 2015 No.27
Seize the Day as a SENG Undergraduate
Set aside ideas of pressure-cooker learning. The School of Engineering’s diverse and go-ahead engineering education opens up a world of exciting opportunities for active students ready to reach for their dreams, according to Prof Chi Ying Tsui, Associate Dean (Undergraduate Studies)
Times have changed considerably in the student experience at the School of Engineering (SENG) in the two decades that Prof Chi Ying Tsui has called HKUST his home.
Joining the then Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (now Electronic and Computer Engineering) in 1994, three years after HKUST was founded, he recalls the days when the education approach was similar to the pressure-cooker style he himself experienced as a master’s and PhD student in the US. “Basically, the professors here expected undergraduates to study every day until midnight!”
Today, such traditional learning at the School has made way for a pioneering, option-filled, increasingly individualized engineering education that continues to strive for excellence while recognizing different undergraduate aspirations, Prof Tsui noted. Be it a research career or a start-up company, a role in a multinational or government institution, or putting engineering skills to work in social service or community-based organizations, the aim is for SENG undergraduates to gain a head start in discovering and realizing their personal dreams in Hong Kong or beyond.
Project work, internships, innovative e-learning, fast-track and early research opportunities, participation in local and international competitions, and exchanges overseas are just some of the ways that young engineers at SENG can now build knowledge in their chosen field and learn more about themselves and others inside and outside the classroom. “We understand that individual students have different potential, different ways of learning and different aspirations,” said Prof Tsui, who took up the two-year post of Associate Dean in July 2014 and whose role encompasses driving forward the curriculum, student life, and teaching and learning. “We want to make sure that everyone has the chance and flexibility to pursue what they want.”
One of the most recent new options during Prof Tsui’s tenure is the Undergraduate Student-initiated Experiential Learning Lab (USEL Lab), launched in October 2015. Here, students from Year 1 to Year 4 can spark a project proposal, find a faculty member willing to supervise it, gain School approval and seed funding, and then test their ideas in the 24-hour lab. The initiative has met with considerable enthusiasm, with six projects already underway.
Teaching innovations are also being introduced, in particular the idea of “flipped classrooms”, whereby students watch lectures on video ahead of class and during class time work in small groups to critically analyze and solve problems based on their viewing. “For today’s Internet generation, learning modes need to be tailored to help students with their studies,” Prof Tsui said.
As the School’s education approach has evolved, so Prof Tsui sees the need for a change in how students view their time at university. “How to motivate undergraduates to pursue their own path – not just passively wait for their degree – is one of my key jobs,” he said. “There is so much more that can be gained in addition to a degree during students’ four years at SENG.”
The popular exchange program, with 45% of students now participating, the student ambassador program, which outreaches to schools and the community, and social service projects utilizing engineering skills are successful examples of out-of-class activities with life-changing potential. More high school initiatives and outreach are also being planned to draw in active student learners and foster awareness of engineering’s significant role in building a knowledge-based society, Prof Tsui said. 
Generating a sense of belonging through the building of traditions is another important task. Over its 10-year history, the award-winning 80-strong interdisciplinary Robotics Team has drawn alumni back to assist current students because they enjoy taking part in this tradition (see "Robotics Team Rolls On to Further Success"). Prof Tsui is now seeking to replicate this in other School activities. Indeed, he knows at first-hand the value of such belonging.
“Many of the departmental colleagues that joined HKUST with me are still here, and I feel like we have watched each other develop and grow,” Prof Tsui said. “I turned down other offers in the US and Hong Kong to join HKUST and I have no regrets. That’s what I hope for our students. That after their years here, and as alumni, they feel it has really been worthwhile to have attended the School.”