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Singapore/Science Connection
Al Albano

Al Albano, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Bryn Mawr College, is spending fall semester 2005 teaching at Singapore Management University in Singapore, and will be providing here reflections on his experiences with science education in a different cultural and pedagogical context.

Letters from Singapore: 26 August | 3 October | 4 November

26 August 2005

Most classes at the School of Economics and Social Sciences of Singapore Management University (SMU) are scheduled for three hours. When I first met my class on nonlinear dynamics, fancifully called "Chaos for Managers," I asked the students how three-hour classes are usually handled.

"Well, Prof," said one of the Indian students, "you lecture for an hour, we discuss for an hour, and for the third hour, you send us home to recover."

Three lessons from that first encounter: (1) Students call their teachers "Prof."  (2) The student population, like Singapore itself, is multinational and multiethnic. Andy, the Indian student who volunteered the helpful information, is from India, but could be lost among the ethnic Indian Singaporeans. In addition to Andy, the class included two other Indian Indians, an Italian and a Vietnamese. The rest are Singaporeans of Chinese, Indian or Eurasian background. (3) The students are quick on the uptake and not at all shy.

Except for a 15-minute break at half-time, I kept them there for three hours, then went home to recover.

  

SMU opened five years ago at a temporary campus a few miles from city center. It is a rather strange beast - privately managed, but government financed. Last summer, it moved to a new campus downtown. It is a block from the Art Museum and the History Museum, two blocks from the National Library, three blocks from the legendary Raffles Hotel, and is surrounded by eateries offering an incredible variety of foods, Asian and Western, at an equally incredible range of prices.

The campus consists of five five-storey academic buildings housing the Schools of Accountancy, Business, Economics and Social Sciences, Information Science, and the Library, all connected by an air-conditioned underground concourse housing eateries and eventually, stores, and a 12-storey Administration Building (is there a moral to this story?) that will be connected by the concourse to the rest once the construction of a subway station is completed. There are no university-run dormitories. Students either commute from their homes, share apartments, or rent rooms in hostels in the neighborhood. The University expects to buy property to be converted to University-run hostels in the near future.

The faculty is international. Many are graduates of American universities, Penn being over-represented because Penn's Wharton School of Business was greatly involved in the planning and initial operation of the university. The President and three of the four deans are American (one is Filipino-American); the fourth is Singaporean.

It's quite clear that the Singaporean government poured a lot of money into this campus. Much concrete and glass, elevators and escalators, high-tech gizmos galore. The whole campus is wireless-accessible. In the "networked seminar room" where I teach the chaos course, every student location has a LAN port; the room has a local wireless network so that the screen of my laptop computer as well as that of any student's wireless capable laptop can be projected on one of two screens. I can access the network drive of the desktop computer in my office from any seminar room on campus.

Entry to the academic areas of campus buildings is via magnetically encoded ID cards. Being a downtown campus, and especially since there is going to be a subway station in the concourse, I suppose this is needed to ensure that only those who are supposed to be in academic areas can get there. But within the academic areas, there is a hierarchical structure encoded in the ID cards. Student ID's, for instance, do not give them access to the corridors where faculty offices are located. A student who came to see me this morning had to be let into the corridor leading to my office by a secretary in the Dean's office. That, more than anything else, told me that I'm not at Bryn Mawr anymore.

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