I Teach in a University but Don’t Call Me Prof
Professional Officers at SIT bridge the divide between academic theory and real-world practice to ensure students learn essential industry skills.
Ms Wu Yaqun paces back and forth in a lab as she distributes worksheets on mechanical design and assembly, and outlines the lesson objectives. Her students are huddled in group discussions, while she goes from table to table to share her inputs.
Later, they put on personal protective equipment and begin their experiments using a vast array of mechanical equipment. During this practical session, she mentors them on how they can effectively apply theoretical knowledge to real-life industry problems.
Ms Wu is part of a group of experienced industry professionals recruited by the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) as academic staff to help students master skills through hands-on learning. They are known as Professional Officers (PO), a unique role created by the university to bridge the gap between industry and academics to ensure students are work-ready upon graduation.
Ms Wu Yaqun, Senior Professional Officer.
“SIT’s pedagogy of applied learning appealed to me. I remembered that when I started working, I faced a steep learning curve as what was expected in the workplace is different from what was taught in university. I thought that I could make a difference in educating our future generation and prepare them better for the working world,” said the former manufacturing development engineer.
Apart from teaching, POs collaborate with local businesses to stay abreast of key industry developments, which in turn helps them keep their lessons updated and relevant.
The PO’s guide to education
SIT created the Professional Officers Division (POD) in 2015 to marry practice and skill with academic theory. The team has grown from 24 to 71 strong today.
“The key advantage (of fashioning this position) is having experienced industry professionals train tomorrow’s industry professionals,” said Associate Professor Lim Kok Hwa, Director, POD.
Among them is Ms Wu, a Senior PO who teaches several modules under the Mechanical Design and Manufacturing Engineering (MDME) degree programme, including mechatronics and manufacturing system management. She had previously worked in a multinational corporation (MNC) and joined SIT in 2015.
“With applied learning, our students not only learn the ‘what’ and 'why'. But most importantly, they also learn ‘how’ through hands-on work in a learning environment that mimics work situations,” said the 38-year-old. “This will greatly increase the employability of our graduates, as they will be able to apply their skills to their work on day one and employers can save on training costs and time.”
From left: Ms Wu Yaqun, Senior Professional Officer, and Associate Professor Lim Kok Hwa, Director, Professional Officers Division.
She also supervises students for their Integrated Work-Study Programme (IWSP), where they work at companies related to their field of study.
“My experience of working in an MNC helps me quickly determine what the key responsibilities for their assigned jobs are,” she said. “This allows me to effectively coach our students and help them adapt to their new working environment better.”
However, her work hit a snag when the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to go online.
Remote learning comes alive
When Singapore entered the circuit breaker in April last year, SIT shifted to home-based learning as mandated. But the practical lessons had to go on.
With support from fellow POs with technical expertise in information and communications technology, Ms Wu and her team designed the ‘Remote Lab for the Learning Factory’ – an integrated system that combines communications platforms, remote access technology and human machine interface (HMI) for more than 70 MDME students. It was rolled out in May and June last year.
The system consists of seven laptops connected to seven manufacturing process modules, where students can view operations through webcams. From their homes, they control each module via a HMI programme set up on every laptop to start and stop the conveyor belt, and read the sensor and RFID data in real time, among other actions.
Students can view the results immediately and hold discussions in online breakout rooms. POs are also physically in the lab to provide real-time technical and cybersecurity support.
The Remote Lab located in the Learning Factory at SIT@NYP Building.
But hurdles surfaced when students had to multi-task during sessions: from operating the learning factory station from home and monitoring the process, to reading lab worksheets and having discussions.
To that end, POs conducted four sessions per topic to give each group sufficient time for practice, and strengthened the remote setup to minimise poor connectivity. The response was positive.
“With the Remote Lab, applied learning was not compromised even during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) this year. In fact, the set-up is closer to today’s industry needs and even for the future, where operators will be required to control machines remotely,” added Ms Wu.
Ms Wu verifying students’ remote operations for the drilling process in the Remote Lab.
Cooperation is key
Technical expertise aside, what distinguishes POs at SIT is that they remain plugged into the local network. They routinely work with small- and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to deepen business and innovation capabilities in Singapore, while transferring new-found proficiency to their students.
One way POD facilitates this is through the RaPID Centre, launched in July 2020. It allows POs to work with companies in engineering-related projects, and supports the SMEs in their product development needs.
“Our POs will, in turn, impart such knowledge and skills to the students to generate a talent pipeline with an innovative mindset that can be a catalyst for transformation in the workforce,” noted A/Prof Lim.
For Ms Wu, becoming a PO gives her the dual satisfaction of being a teacher and a lifelong learner. She is excited to keep pace with upcoming technologies, help local companies to grow, and transfer those skills to her students.
“Working side-by-side with students will boost their confidence and passion to solve practical industrial problems, and at the same time enable them to acquire deep technical and essential skills needed by the industry,” she said.