Reinventing the engineer

Reinventing the engineer
Mr Sean Chua, 23, and Ms Tan Su Wen, 21, at the entrance of UC Berkeley. Ms Tan and Mr Chua are among 50 students offered a place in NTU's Renaissance Engineering Programme.

SINGAPORE - Victoria Junior College student Tan Su Wen emerged with a string of As for her A levels three years ago and had her pick of law schools here and abroad.

Although she is strong in the sciences and mathematics, she had applied for law and secured places in the Singapore Management University, University College London and King's College, London.

But after she attended a talk on a special engineering programme at Nanyang Technological University, she did an about turn and applied for the programme, which combines the study of engineering with business and liberal arts.

The 21-year-old, currently doing a one-year stint at Berkeley University in California as part of her engineering programme, explained what prompted her to make the switch: "Like any young person, I really didn't give much thought to engineering. You just think of an engineer's job as a daily grind, without much reward. But when I went for the talk, I realised that studying engineering at NTU could be exciting."

National Junior College student Sean Chua, 23, secured a place to study medicine in two highly competitive Chinese universities, before making a switch to engineering at NTU.

He still hopes to study medicine, but at postgraduate level. He feels that the grounding in engineering will prepare him well for postgraduate medical school.

Ms Tan and Mr Chua are among 50 students offered a place in NTU's Renaissance Engineering Programme which started in 2011 and attracts about 400 applicants each year. One in three is an A-level student with three As, which puts them in the top 15 per cent of their age group.

Attracting this crop is a feat on the part of NTU considering that engineering has long been one of the least appealing career choices for the brightest students here.

For years, A-level students who did well in mathematics and science have shunned engineering and opted instead for medicine, business or finance, because of the lucrative career prospects.

Part of the draw of the NTU programme is that students spend a year at a partner university before taking up internships at start-ups and companies abroad.

Those who head to the University of California (Berkeley), like Mr Chua and Ms Tan, go on to intern with companies in Silicon Valley, the home of Internet giants Google and Facebook. Those heading to Imperial College of London will get to work in top companies such as Rolls-Royce in Britain.

The cost over the full 41/2 years is $125,000, but students pay only about half in fees, thanks to fee subsidies from the Government.

They are taught by some of the best professors from NTU's engineering and business schools and class sizes are kept to about 10.

Professor Teoh Swee Hin, who heads the programme, says the aim is to nurture "renaissance engineers" modelled after Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man who was a painter, sculptor, inventor, architect and engineer.

That may be somewhat ambitious but Prof Teoh stresses that just as da Vinci's interests and expertise stretched across a variety of domains, successful engineers of tomorrow will need to understand how their discipline is connected to other fields and how solutions to the most pressing problems faced by the world today are connected.

In the United States the debate on the shortage of engineers and scientists has taken a turn with some asking if the shortage is a myth.

Locally, NTU, the National University of Singapore and Singapore Institute of Technology produce about 4,500 engineering graduates a year. NTU, dubbed the world's largest single-campus engineering facility, produces about half the total each year.

Dr Raj Thampuran, managing director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) agrees that the output of engineers from the local universities is substantial. But he points to the rapid development of the one-north research and business park in Buona Vista and stresses that Singapore needs engineers as it transforms itself into a knowledge-based economy.

He also notes that the pressing issue here is not a shortage of engineers, but rather that the best A-level and polytechnic students have been shunning engineering.

"We need engineers who are able to deal with the bigger, more complex problems that we are faced with today, from climate change to water and food shortage, and come up with novel solutions," he says.

Some years ago NTU decided to find out why the brightest students kept away from engineering. Two main reasons emerged.

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