The Future of Education

Edition 13

Accepted Abstracts

Taking the Classroom to the Field

Hoong-Chor Chin, National University of Singapore (Singapore)

Soon-Hoe Chew, National University of Singapore (Singapore)


Civil Engineering students are trained to deal with a wide range of engineering work through solving well-structured textbook-type problems. However, in practice civil engineering problems are more complicated than what are typically presented in textbooks and tutorial problems.

To overcome this problem, we design a third-year module to require students to apply their broad engineering capabilities to tackle a real-life project. This module has 3 distinctive features: out-of-classroom learning, out-of-comfort-zone experience and out-of-box thinking.

The out-of-classroom learning takes the students into the field where the real-life problem needs to be correctly identified through stakeholder engagement. The out-of-comfort zone experience is accomplished by adopting a field project in a small rural mountain village in China, away from the convenience of urbanized Singapore. The out-of-box thinking requires students to draw on their understanding in various engineering and non-engineering disciplines to generate a suitable integrated infrastructure master plan for the village.

Essentially the module is conducted in 3 phases over a 2-semester period: (1) a pre-trip session for students to receive instructions on infrastructure planning and to identify the field problem remotely, (2) a 2-week field-trip for students to conduct ground surveys to scope the problem and (3) a follow-up for students to acquire advance knowledge in other modules before finalising the proposed master plan for the village.

During the preparatory phase, students are expected to grapple with challenges such as appreciation of the socio-political system in China and the infrastructure needs which are linked to social and cultural norms. These issues are alien to the Singaporean students which they must handle sensitively.

During the field trip, students go through an immersion program which include home visits, cultural and social activities as well as a call on the town officials. Students have to spend considerable time to appraise the topographical and physical layout of the village as well as conduct a participatory rural appraisal to assess the needs and aspirations of the villagers.

In the third phase, students do self-directed learning to acquire specific knowledge necessary to develop their designs innovatively.

The adopted teaching method proves to yield several important benefits. Students are highly motivated to learn and opportunity to address real-life societal needs has incentivised them for life-long learning. The complexity of the problem also warrants them to work as a team, particularly because they need to cross check their understanding of the local issues. The students find immense gratification, not just in producing a useful plan but also in winning the hearts of the villagers. 

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