Moving from strength to strength:

Theresa Fox


"Raising our standards is our main goal, we're not trying to do anything fancy," declared Professor Roderick Wong, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE).

"That we are moving towards is making our programmes more flexible, with fewer course requirements".With a few programmes in FSE carrying 108 credit units for three-year courses, compared with the 120 credit units required for four-year courses in the US, Professor Wong's concern is understandable. "The number should be around 90, so we are currently examining how to reduce course requirements."

The Faculty is also considering how it can best reduce the number of programmes it offers. Professor Wong would like to see FSE move towards the US model, which offers fewer, more general programmes but gives students greater flexibility in constructing their programme of study. "The Faculty is continually evolving, with the curriculum being upgraded according to the demands of students and society."

Not a man to boast, Professor Wong is, however, justifiably proud of the calibre of academic staff in the Faculty. The "snowball effect" is one reason why so many top scientists are attracted to CityU, he believes. "You start off with a few good people and they attract others, which is why we have so many eminent people, including eight academicians." There are also many excellent young staff, too, Professor Wong said, whom he believes will soon become "stars".

With its combination of science and engineering--two big areas under one roof--Professor Wong believes the Faculty is unusual, if not unique. ?e respect each other and work in harmony."

The quota problem
One area in which Professor Wong, among others, is definitely disappointed, is the size of the research student quota allocated to CityU by the University Grants Commission (UGC). Professor Johnny Chan and Professor Ron Hui, both Associate Deans of FSE, also voiced their concerns about the low quota, compared with Hong Kong University, Chinese University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "Every year we have to turn down so many applicants," Professor Chan said, reflecting the frustration felt by many in the Faculty. "We have excellent faculty members doing good research and there is no reason why they should set this limit."

One solution to the problem could be the generation of external resources through setting up more CityU Enterprises subsidiary companies, Professor Hui believes. "As a result of the quota, we have a man-made limitation on our research ability and I believe this artificial restriction is not good for society. But there is no way we can overcome this problem in the foreseeable future except by having successful spin-off companies."

On the premise that every cloud has a silver lining, however, the FSE has benefited from the quota in one way--so many research students apply to come to CityU that it ends up having its pick of the local first-class honours students. The UGC also limits the number of non-local research students--most of whom come from the mainland--to one-third of the intake, and they too are the "best of the best", according to Professor Chan. ?he quota is so small we can only take the best and, as a result, the quality of our research students is the best in Hong Kong."

A matter of bread and butter
Although the Faculty has an excellent research record, it has not been gained at the expense of teaching, Professor Wong was quick to point out. "Teaching is the bread, research is the butter. You can't live just on butter." In fact, one of the things which makes FSE unique is the way the programmes it offers tie in with the research being undertaken.

The use of IT in teaching in FSE has increased significantly, Professor Chan said, with the introduction of the studio mode of teaching, which combines lectures, tutorials and laboratory work. Typically, two students use a computer terminal to view a short lecture explaining the concepts of certain phenomena. They then solve problems hands-on or do a computer simulation to understand what's going on. "By doing this they can apply the test concept at once, instead of hearing the lecture one day and having to wait a few weeks to do the experiment, when they may have forgotten the whole thing." Professor Chan explained.

This method of teaching started with a few courses and has expanded to a number of FSE programmes. And the general feedback on multi-media web teaching is that it's useful because students can go over what they have been taught later, he said. "By allowing them to study when they want, it gives them more flexibility in how they learn and we are moving more towards this teaching style."

Another new teaching strategy some FSE departments have adopted is problem-based learning. Students are given specific problems, or come up with their own problems, then go ahead trying to solve them--by carrying out hands-on research, talking to people, or doing library research.

Students are also encouraged to give their opinions on the quality of teaching in the Teaching Feedback Questionnaire (TFQ). "Although some staff complain that it's too much like a popularity contest, we do find that if a member of Faculty consistently gets good scores, he or she is usually a good teacher--and vice versa," Professor Chan commented. However, he added, the TFQ is now being redesigned to include tailor-made sections aimed at getting feedback from students on the new modes of teaching so they can be further improved.

Adding value to teaching
Another area on which FSE is focusing is value-added teaching. Gone are the days when students had to fend for themselves--at CityU they are helped to adjust to university life the moment they step through our doors, with tutorials and staff and student mentors to help them with any problems. "Also, if we see weak students, we set up remedial courses--for example, the Maths Help Desk, which is staffed during office hours and which students can use like a clinic," Professor Chan added.

Delivering lectures is one thing; how much students absorb is something else. So FSE is continually looking at new teaching methods to help students learn and add value to their university life. A new Industrial Attachment Scheme, started last year by the Department of Electronic Engineering, shows promise, Professor Chan believes. Under this scheme, students go to factories in Guangdong for eight weeks of training, after which they are given a small project to do.

"In the process they learn about the entire manufacturing processes, from the design of a product to production. It gives them a feel of the real world, so when they graduate they'll know what to expect. And it gives employers the chance to spot likely future employees." The Departments of Applied Physics and Manufacturing Engineering and Engineering Management are now also participating in the scheme.

Taking the research initiative
The "butter" area of FSE--research--has always been important. "All faculty have a duty to undertake basic research," said Professor Hui. And with more funding for applied research being allocated by the government, colleagues in FSE are encouraged to consider transferring their research output to industry if appropriate. A working group has been formed which aims to persuade colleagues to interact more with industrialists and visit more factories in the region. "If can we set up more subsidiary companies, they'll bring in extra funding to enhance our research ability--this is what many US universities do," Professor Hui pointed out.

To support applied R&D, CityU has taken the initiative to join the Shenzhen Virtual University Park (see Linkage No. 199). "But we still have to find more space to support our subsidized companies," Professor Hui cautioned. "We were the first local university to set up an Industrial and Business Development Office and we need to maintain that lead, especially with other universities in the race."

What Professor Hui would like to see is the UGC adopt a free- economy approach, with all universities allowed to compete fairly. By allocating quotas the UGC restricts their ability to perform, to the detriment of society, he believes. "By arbitrarily labelling a university a research university, they will not automatically perform well in research. There are good researchers everywhere, not in just two or three universities.?And with eight academicians, as well as other excellent researchers on staff, Professor Hui considers the research performance of FSE is as good as any world-class university. "Research isn't about labels, it's about creative knowledge."

Faculty on the move
Looking to the future, plans are underway to establish a new department: the Department of Computer Engineering and Information Technology, by reorganizing the Departments of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. With computer technology and multimedia technology the hot topics of the past few years, Professor Wong is certain graduates with IT skills will be in high demand. "With collaboration between electronic engineers, computer scientists and colleagues from the School of Creative Media, the new department will be unique in Hong Kong and should attract good students."

Professor Wong's strategy is to let FSE grow naturally. "We are still a young faculty but we are on the way up. With all the excellent people we have and the good work they are doing, I do believe that in the next few years our faculty will be internationally renowned." 


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