Singapore Educators Visit SESP to Learn about Interdisciplinary Innovation

Singapore Educators Visit SESP to Learn about Interdisciplinary Innovation

Singapore Educators Visit SESP

Six representatives from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore visited SESP on a “learning journey” to U.S. educational and corporate institutions that are innovative and interdisciplinary. Teddy Zmrhal (MA97), a director with IDEO international design and innovation consulting firm, arranged the visit as part of the Singapore school’s strategic planning. 

The Singapore group had two destinations in the United States: Silicon Valley and Chicago. In Silicon Valley they visited Stanford, Google, Berkeley Institute of Design, IDEO San Francisco and the California College of Arts. In the Chicago area they visited SESP and Northwestern, the Institute of Design, business startups and the University of Chicago. These companies and learning institutions allowed the group to discover a variety of cultures and approaches to innovation.

“We want to understand how we can improve our teaching and learning,” said Choo-Yeo Cheh Hoon, senior director of the design cluster at Ngee Ann. The polytechnic school with 16,000 students offers degrees in areas including engineering, business and computer sciences.

At SESP, the Singapore team met with SESP dean Penelope Peterson, faculty members Mike Horn and Jeannette Colyvas, and staff from the Office of STEM Education Partnerships. Also at Northwestern they met with Elizabeth Gerber and Stacy Benjamin of Segal Design Institute and Design for America.

Peterson briefed the Singapore group on innovations of the School of Education and Social Policy. The School has the first Learning Sciences program and the first Human Development and Social Policy program in the nation. In addition, its undergraduate majors were the first of their kind, and the School’s Center for Talent Development is a 30-year-old center for educating gifted students from preK through grade 12. A high-tech Student Affairs Office uses technology to deepen the School’s sense of community.

“Northwestern was founded for pioneers, and I see the School as pioneering and innovative,” Peterson said. In response to a question about what allows innovation to flourish at the School, Peterson said, “It helps that we’ve had a history of firsts.” She credited Roger Schank, who founded the Institute for Learning Sciences in 1990s with creating the field of learning sciences. “Roger is a critical part of why we’re innovative,” she noted. She also emphasized that the faculty is creative and nontraditional.

“We are conscious of what we are going to do to keep getting better,” noted Peterson. She pointed out the School’s highest priority is to develop its global perspective as a means to unify the student experience for undergraduates, such as by creating a center for global engagement. Other goals are to continue designing innovative spaces for learning. As a small school of education, “We try to be focused and strategic,” she said.

The Singapore educators questioned Peterson about autonomy and interdisciplinary learning. “The whole school is interdisciplinary, with faculty from different disciplines, … all focused on improving problems in people’s lives,” Peterson explained. In addition, the School fosters student interaction around hands-on collaborative projects.

Peterson described the research of faculty members, from Carol Lee’s reading comprehension research to Emma Adam’s studies of adolescent stress and David Figlio’s investigations of school accountability. At SESP, most research focuses on STEM education, design and policy, and grant funding amounts to approximately $450,000 per faculty member.

The educators learned firsthand from Horn about his research in tangible interactive design and learning. “Much of my research explores the use of new forms of technology to create learning environments,” he explained. Colyvas described her research into organizations and entrepreneurship, including technology transfer at universities. In a final session, OSEP staff members described how the office acts as a liaison between K-12 schools and the cutting-edge resources of Northwestern University in an effort to improve STEM education.

“Our goal is to figure out how in a risk-averse culture to allow innovation,” said Zmrhal. A graduate of the Learning Sciences program, he pointed out the strength of Chicago as a model for Singapore because of the startup activity, and specifically Groupon, as well as the new forward-looking mayor.

“We are interested in improving our curriculum and having students be more interdisciplinary, forcing a more collaborative spirit,” said Choo-Yeo Cheh Hoon. Other members of the Ngee Ann group were Looi Mei Fong, deputy principal; Russell Chan, director of the Planning and Projects Office; Chan Kim Mui, director of the Staff Learning and Development Office; Tang-Lim Guek Im, senior director, Academic Matters; and Patrice Choong Siat Moy, section head for the School of Infocomm Technology.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 3/8/13