Sunday, September 26, 2021

Is Creating the College of Design and Engineering Worth the Effort?

A well-thought-out expansion of interdisciplinary education, or a corporate rebranding of the Faculty of Engineering?

Story | Ken Bradley (he/they), Guest Writer
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him/his)

I am an industrial designer in the School of Design and Environment (SDE), in my second year. I’m not opposed to the merger of the Faculty of Engineering (FOE) and SDE into the College of Design and Engineering (CDE)

Still, I am unsure of how merging FOE and SDE into CDE will work. The NUS Management hasn’t been entirely clear how it would implement the merger. How will the new interdisciplinary curriculum affect our workloads? How will the new modules affect our division’s goal of creating literate designers? Will the changes actually address our grievances with the current curriculum structure, or will it just create new problems down the line for our juniors?

Design and engineering are inextricably linked. For example, architects often work with civil engineers, product designers often have to work with electrical engineers, and project managers have to work with electrical and mechanical engineers. The merger makes sense in that it brings the two interrelated departments together and facilitates intellectual exchange in learning.

I applaud CDE and Aaron Thean, Dean of FOE, for appreciating the importance of diversity. Being in project teams with engineers, project managers, architects, and industrial designers can help build a culture of empathy and help build healthy workplaces of the future. According to Prof. Thean, the problems that we will encounter in the workplace will be more complex and will need a “convergence of different fields.” As the economy changes, workplaces will demand more of us, and our education should accordingly equip us to be able to cope with such challenges. 

At the moment, interdisciplinary and interdepartmental modules are rare. I believe EG2501 Liveable Cities is one of the only few modules wherein there is an emphasis on having diverse types of specialties within project groups and in the class itself. In this module, students are introduced to the process of governance, planning, development, and management of cities to achieve quality of life, a sustainable environment, and a competitive economy, using Singapore as an example, with a systems thinking perspective. By combining their respective expertise in different disciplines, students will be able to understand the role that professionals in urban systems, such as urban planners, architects, engineers, real estate consultants, and managers, play in creating livable cities. 

If we are to make interdisciplinary education a reality, these modules must become more commonplace and readily available. Will the new common curriculum modules facilitate interdisciplinary education? 

In the case of Industrial Design students, we already have this aspect of interdisciplinary learning: many of our modules are designed to require the students to explore marketing, business development, research, planning, manufacturing, etc. Our major is by nature interdisciplinary: If you ask any industrial designer what they do, we’ll come up with an all-encompassing answer. I am unsure of whether we need more interdisciplinary learning for ourselves.

The current modules that promote interdepartmental learning, to many of my peers, only pose obstacles to our design learning. For example, in the case of the General Education (GE) pillars offered by NUS across all faculties, the lessons learnt and the skills taught barely correlate to actual design work. In particular, in GER1000 Quantitative Reasoning, we learned how to sort data from scientific studies through various tools, such as Excel and R Commander. 

However, upon talking to my seniors and to my yearmates, many have said that the skills taught in this class barely apply to the quantitative and qualitative research in design. The GER1000 syllabus barely touched on the applicability of these skills to us as practitioners; we didn’t learn how to quantify survey data, nor have we ever used Excel or R Commander to analyze the primary research data we gather from people. Whenever we put out surveys or any form of design research, we barely apply the skills learnt from GER1000, but instead take cues from our instructors, from their actual practice. While this is only one GE module out of many offered by NUS, it shows that interdepartmental learning doesn’t organically happen when students attend classes of other disciplines.

A poorly-conceived common curriculum could potentially pose a distraction from our own progress as budding engineers, designers, architects, project managers, etc. We need to learn the skills required to do our jobs well, and these take time to learn and master. In the case of industrial designers, we need to dedicate a lot of time to learning a comprehensive design vocabulary. For example, graphic designers need to learn how to structure information, understand past references, understand client goals, work in teams, use software like Adobe Cloud to design, and understand multimedia design strategies, among many other components. These skills take a lot of practice to perfect. 

Having to fulfil the new common curriculum requirements could be detrimental to learning. The current solution to regulating workloads is the Modular Credit (MC) system. MCs are the factors determining a student’s workload, expressed in time. In practice, however, Industrial Design students often work for longer hours than what is determined by the MC system. For example, in our module ID1113 Modelling and Sketching for Design, for the equivalent of three hours of work per week according to the MC system, my classmates pulled all-nighters over two weeks. As designers, we have to invest hours upon hours into our projects to perfect aesthetics and mechanics. The MC system does not accurately reflect the amount of work we are expected to put into each project. This discrepancy between the assumed and actual workloads has not been addressed, and might be worsened with the addition of common curriculum modules.

The question here that needs to be asked is, “Do we have the bandwidth to undertake these new projects and modules in CDE?” It is true that the workplace will demand intense dedication from us. However, we also need to ask ourselves, both in school and in the workplace: “Is putting in this many hours of work sustainable for my health?” 

Many of my classmates are unfazed by this merger. Many Industrial Design students have neither the time nor the energy to ask how this merger affects us. I personally don’t believe this really changes anything, and that this might just be a rebranding exercise for the sake of NUS’s engineering students. NTU’s Engineering faculty ranked better than NUS’s in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings. A glance at several online communities also shows a preference for NTU’s Engineering faculty over NUS’s. The first Quora result on a Google search comparing NUS’ and NTU’s Engineering faculties, for example, recommends NTU’s Mechanical Engineering course over that of NUS, due to the former providing better corporate partnership opportunities. 

NUS also has to compete with the up-and-coming SUTD which, much like Yale-NUS, has adopted a multidisciplinary structure for their STEM majors. SUTD integrates engineering, architecture, and design modules in a common curriculum. The engineering departments in NUS might want to leverage on the existing strengths of Industrial Design and Architecture to strengthen their standing among Singaporean universities. Design is becoming more integral to the market (which is why I chose this major) and NUS needs to ensure that their potential engineering students don’t fly off to other universities.

Industrial Design, as a division, will continue down its own path, churning out designers for Singapore and the world. We have a solid curriculum that produces qualified designers, and many of those designers come back to teach the next generation. Our division has a solid ecosystem. 

Meanwhile, our juniors may just attend the common curriculum classes for attendance’s sake, do the projects, and spend their Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory options (S/Us) strategically. We’ve done this before, and we’ll do it again. It seems that the merger may not affect us positively, since the common curriculum may distract us from the real learning within our matured department.

Many of us are focused on being good designers. That’s the mindset ingrained in us by the rigor of our courses, and what the market has been telling us we should be. We’ll survive this exercise. But the question is, for NUS, is it worth all this effort?

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

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