• MacVicar Day panel (l-r): Chris Kaiser, Lawrence Sass, Diana Henderson, Karen Hao, Samson Lim, John Fernandez, and John Brisson. Standing: Dennis Freeman

    MacVicar Day panel (l-r): Chris Kaiser, Lawrence Sass, Diana Henderson, Karen Hao, Samson Lim, John Fernandez, and John Brisson. Standing: Dennis Freeman

    Photo: Dominick Reuter

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  • MacVicar Day panel (l-r): Chris Kaiser, Lawrence Sass, Diana Henderson, Karen Hao, Samson Lim, John Fernandez, and John Brisson. Standing: Dennis Freeman

    MacVicar Day panel (l-r): Chris Kaiser, Lawrence Sass, Diana Henderson, Karen Hao, Samson Lim, John Fernandez, and John Brisson. Standing: Dennis Freeman

    Photo: Dominick Reuter

    Full Screen

Collaboration 101

MacVicar Day examines MIT’s unique partnership with Singapore University of Technology and Design.


On January 25, 2010, before signing a formal collaboration agreement between MIT and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), then-MIT President Susan Hockfield said, “Our role will be extensive and direct. MIT faculty will be involved at every stage, from developing new curricula to helping with early deployment, assisting with mentoring, career development programs, and conducting major joint research projects. We also look forward to numerous opportunities for student exchanges and collaborations.”

Five years later, that vision has come to fruition. SUTD is up and running, with over 1,000 students and 101 course offerings, 94 of which were contributed by MIT. More than 100 Institute faculty — or roughly 10 percent overall — have participated in developing SUTD’s education and research programs. Yet, as panelists attested at the MacVicar Day symposium on March 13, it certainly hasn’t been a one-way street; MIT-SUTD has also greatly enriched education and research at MIT.

The symposium, “Undergraduate Education Goes Global: Learning from the MIT-SUTD Collaboration,” was part of MacVicar Day, an annual celebration of the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program. Dean for Undergraduate Education Dennis M. Freeman opened the program by recognizing the four 2015 Fellows, selected for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Seven speakers shared their perspectives on the collaboration: John Brisson, director of the MIT-SUTD Collaboration Office and professor of mechanical engineering; John Fernandez, professor of architecture; Diana Henderson, professor of literature; Chris Kaiser, professor of biology; Samson Lim, assistant professor of humanities, arts, and social science at SUTD; Lawrence Sass, associate professor of architecture; and MIT senior and mechanical engineering major Karen Hao.

Brisson began with a broad-brushstrokes picture of the collaboration. “Basically, we’re trying to develop a new, world-class university that is based on technology and design,” he said, adding that the Singaporeans want to replicate what they call the “MIT DNA. … What it boils down to is our sense of innovation, passion, … [and] entrepreneurship. … They want that there.”

Building a university from the ground up has presented a unique opportunity to create a new paradigm in technology education. At SUTD, which was incorporated in 2009 and is Singapore’s fourth publicly funded university, students are grouped into learning communities of about 50. For the first year — called the “freshmore” year, because one full calendar year is the equivalent of freshman year and half of sophomore year — each cohort takes the same classes and occupies its own customizable, state-of-the art classroom.

The curriculum is highly interdisciplinary, hands-on, and project-based; Brisson estimated that students complete 20 projects before graduation. Design, as a discipline, provides the core framework upon which the educational and research program is built. For example, instead of majors, SUTD has four interdisciplinary “pillars”: Architecture and Sustainable Design (ASD); Engineering Product Development (EPD); Engineering Systems and Design (ESD); and Information Systems Technology and Design (ISTD).

"Wildly satisfying" collaboration

Several speakers noted that one of the most rewarding aspects of their involvement in SUTD is the opportunity to meet and work with other MIT and SUTD faculty that they would not cross paths with otherwise.

Sass, who spent six months in Singapore and developed several courses for the ASD curriculum, said, “What I really got from SUTD is relationships — it’s an environment where you can get to know people and ‘date’ other faculty that you’d never have a chance to ‘date’ [here at MIT.] In Signapore, Sass connected with a SUTD professor with very similar research interests. Although they only overlapped for three days before the professor left for a mentoring program at MIT, that interaction led to a productive collaboration on visualizing and prototyping large objects.

Because SUTD courses are inherently interdisciplinary, these interactions are not limited to faculty within the same field. Fernandez teamed up with Sang-Gook Kim, a professor of mechanical engineering, and Edward Greitzer, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, to develop an Introduction to Design class for ASR. “These three professors from there different disciplines, maybe we have spent the most time together of any professors in those three disciplines here at MIT, in one room, working out a class,” he said. “And it was wildly satisfying.”

Pedagogical innovation and iteration

For many of the panelists, the MIT-SUTD collaboration has been a catalyst for change in MIT’s curriculum. “Many elements of [the Introduction to Design class] are coming back to MIT,” Fernandez said. “This is one of the main things we kept in mind from the very beginning, is what we do there, or what we’re doing in the service of [SUTD], how is that reflected back at MIT?”

Developing SUTD’s life sciences curriculum has led to innovations that could be imported back to Cambridge, according to Kaiser. SUTD has “given us kind of a test-bed to do some experiments in using digital educational tools.” One idea is to create a class with a wet lab component — such as culturing bacteria in a petri dish — and then use a simulator to generate enough realistic data for statistical analysis. “I believe this type of experimental setting, where you actually make a kind of cyborg between a real wet lab and a simulated laboratory environment, is going to be the future of how a lot of laboratories are run,” Kaiser noted.

Kaiser also described a new, hybrid curriculum being launched at SUTD that melds biology and chemistry. “You can’t really understand modern biology without chemical principles, and many of the most interesting examples of chemical principles come from the life sciences,” Kaiser explained. In the first two semesters, the course will cover topics where the two disciplines dovetail well; in the third semester, the time would be split between chemistry and biology, covering topics that don’t overlap, like genetics.         

Henderson and Lim described ways in which the MIT-SUTD partnership has led to innovation in the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) curriculum. In an effort to improve SUTD students’ skills in communication, public speaking, and writing, Henderson offered a new Independent Activities Period (IAP) class this year: Global Shakespeares in Performance. In it, visiting SUTD students and MIT students did scene work from Shakespeare’s plays “in a way that I simply cannot cover in a 12-unit class of the normative type,” she explained.

“This collaboration really opens up opportunities for faculty, both here and at SUTD, for tinkering or experimenting with new courses, or new units within courses that already exist,” said Lim. He worked with other history faculty to create a pilot course at MIT, The World Since 1400. Instead of “shipping” the course over to Singapore, MIT and SUTD faculty discussed ways to reshape the class syllabus and materials to reflect the context and culture of Singapore.

Tweaking the course content is an ongoing process, Lim said. “Rather than just being a one-time iteration and it’s over,” they are evaluating what works at MIT, what works in Singapore, and identifying ways to adjust the course content and assignments. One idea under consideration is offering the course during the same semester here and in Singapore and having joint assignments between MIT and SUTD students.

“We’re teaching a world history course, right?” he said. “It’s one of the first times we’re really making an effort to make a global history course truly global.”

Going global

Creating “truly global” education and research programs is very much a part of the vision of the MIT-SUTD collaboration. Fernandez and his colleagues were keenly aware of this as they developed Introduction to Design. “The goal in a foundational class in design is not only to learn better how to design, but how to design for those intractable global social issues,” he explained.

Tackling those issues is at the heart of the International Design Center (IDC), a multi-million dollar research center with locations at SUTD and MIT. Research at the center revolves around designing devices, systems, and services organized into three areas, called Grand Challenges: design with the developing world, sustainable built environment, and information and computer technology-enabled devices for better living. Moreover, the design work that takes place at the IDC feeds into the curriculum at SUTD and MIT. For example, the IDC has sponsored several IAP classes, such as Construction Sets for Health, in which students design affordable devices patients can use to manage their health care.                                             

Hao learned firsthand that just raising global awareness through student exchanges is a powerful first step in addressing challenging social issues. Last summer, she did an internship at a company in Singapore through the MISTI program. In the evenings, she helped run a leadership program for SUTD students to cultivate their skills in communication, presentation, and cultural awareness.

 “At MIT we’re taught and encouraged to become global leaders, and when I went to Singapore it was first time I realized how little I knew about the rest of world,” she said. “If we want to be global leaders and we want to do something relevant to people around the world, then we really need to be more aware and learn more about different cultures. And my SUTD friends taught me that.”


Topics: Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Education, teaching, academics, Singapore-MIT, Singapore, MacVicar fellows, Students, Faculty, Independent Activities Period, Global, STEM education, Humanities, Special events and guest speakers, Undergraduate

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