He cooks up ways to make engineering fun

SINGAPORE - An accomplished researcher, Professor Chong Tow Chong holds 23 patents, and has published more than 700 peer-reviewed papers in international journals. The electrical engineer by training is now working on his latest experiment: how to boil an egg in a microwave oven.

The technique, he lets on, is to wrap the egg in aluminium foil and submerge it in water. The foil prevents the egg from cracking, while the heated water cooks it. "When I cook, I don't just look at recipes, I try to look at it from a scientific view," the 59-year-old, who counts cooking as one of his hobbies, told The Straits Times last Friday.

His passion for science and engineering, and a healthy sense of curiosity, has kept him in the business of promoting engineering education for more than three decades.

Last week, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) provost was awarded the Joint Medal of Excellence by the Institution of Engineers Singapore (IES) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, for helping to shape Singapore's science and engineering landscape. This is the sixth time the prestigious award has been given out in IES' 47 years of award history.

Past winners include Nanyang Technological University president emeritus Su Guaning.

The accolade comes at a time when the sector faces a key challenge: how to restore the lustre of engineering.

Many young people find engineering "boring" and "unglamorous", admitted Prof Chong.

Students are more keen on business and accountancy because of better career prospects and the perception that physics is tough to score in, said the academic who spent a large part of his career at the National University of Singapore's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

During that time, he also held other portfolios at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), as executive director of the Data Storage Institute, and the Science and Engineering Research Council. He was appointed SUTD provost in 2010.

His proposal on making engineering attractive again for young people is having an image makeover, better pay and improving how science is taught at an early age.

"Engineers today are quite different from engineers 50 years ago," he pointed out. Those in new disciplines like environmental engineering and bio-engineering hardly do "gritty" or "dirty" work.

Fresh engineering graduates also need to be paid more, and the contributions of well-regarded veterans should be recognised in a more prominent way, he suggested. Industry surveys suggest that entry-level pay in engineering jobs is around $2,800 monthly, compared to over $3,000 in finance.

But at the end of the day, it boils down to interest, and that is why it is important to get students interested in science and engineering early, said Prof Chong, who got his bachelor's degree from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. It was during those years that he met his wife, a Brazilian national of Japanese descent. He also has a master's from NUS, and a Doctor of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Students need to be excited and engaged, instead of being spoonfed with content, he said. This can be done by injecting lessons with a variety of segments like videos, demonstrations and projects.

That is what SUTD, which has done away with traditional engineering disciplines, hopes to achieve in its students, he added. The school's curriculum is organised around the needs of the world, which would range from producing medical devices to having a hand in new industries like big data analytics.

None of his children is in the engineering sector, but he is not disappointed. "I let them pursue their interests," said the professor, who has two daughters aged 22 and 28, and a son, 24.

An engineer today can have a hand in solving some of the world's most pressing issues, such as climate change, he said. "Today, if you train as an engineer, the opportunity to be able to impact the world is, I think, greater than at any other time."

ateng@sph.com.sg


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