April 26, 2012

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Following a visit to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and three other American universities this month, the deputy prime minister of Singapore cited WPI's project-based, experiential approach to learning as a model for his own country to follow in expanding its university system.

In an article in today’s Straights Times of Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that WPI students take on projects to solve problems identified by faculty, non-governmental organizations, or companies. "Students are not just learning the theory and then doing some projects to show they have learned those concepts," he told the Times. "They try and solve real-life problems to learn concepts."

In considering whether it should build a fifth university or expand its existing institutions, the Southeast Asian nation must aim for a new model of tertiary education that prizes innovation and creativity, the Times article said. Tharman was part of a 15-member review committee headed by Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong, who also toured the institutions.

The team toured WPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. "Though most are specialist institutions focused on engineering and technology-related disciplines, they value the humanities as essential grounding subjects," the Times article noted. "Cooper Union and Worcester (WPI), for example, require their engineering students to study the humanities and social sciences."

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman noted that while none of these innovations was entirely unique, in these universities they came together "in an intense way and help them differentiate themselves within the university landscape" with graduates who are highly sought after. All had innovated to nurture students with deep skills and expertise, but who are also oriented to the real world. One other quality they prize is flexibility of mind, the article said.

"At the end of the day, parents and students have to be convinced that pursuing practice-based learning up to the highest level will pay off," Tharman said. He added that it is important to groom students to be innovators and creators.

At WPI, the Interactive Qualifying Project is a capstone experience that is a core component of the institution’s 40-year-old project-based approach to education. Read more about the Interactive Qualifying Project.

  • Read the Straights Times of Singapore article.