Ankur's diary entry - Spring 2011

As a study exchange student in Singapore, Ankur's experiencing different approaches to learning and trying out new disciplines alongside engineering. He's also had the chance to backpack across Asia!

Ankur on a junk boat restaurant in Hong Kong Xīnnián kuàilè or kung hei fat choi! That's 'Happy Chinese New Year!' to you in Mandarin and Cantonese. The recent Chinese Lunar New Year provided an occasion for reflection, where I looked over the semester just past and began planning for the semester looming ahead as I continue with my study exchange in Singapore.

My host university Nanyang Technological University (NTU), has quite a unique blend of Western and Asian academic systems and work ethics. Most of our professors or lecturers, at least the ones in the departments I study in, did their postgraduate or doctoral studies in the UK. A couple of them even studied at my university, the University of Surrey! It is a testament to how widely respected UK universities and research institutions are around the world.

A very different course structure

The course structure is modelled along the lines of an American university. The crucial difference here is that they use a relative grade point average system, rather than the absolute grading system that most UK universities use. The academic environment, thus, is highly competitive - as NTU attracts some of the brightest students from South Asian and South East Asian countries.

Different approaches to learning

I'm finding significant divergence in attitudes in a lot of aspects of academics however. Labs, for instance, are fairly rigidly structured; lab manuals list instructions in detail and students are expected to follow this guided path to learning. Tutorial sessions have lecturers or teaching assistants walking us through answer steps.

It is a marked change from the emphasis on self-study and research that I encountered at Surrey. I wasn't expecting a facsimile of the UK education system when I decided to go on the exchange programme of course, in fact, one of my primary motivating factors was to open myself up to new perspectives of accomplishing things. I guess both approaches to learning have their own merits, but somehow, the guided approach seems unedifying in certain circumstances.

Getting to try out different disciplines as well as engineering

That isn't to say I haven't encountered unique learning experiences here. I got to work on a team research project on the efficacy of speech recognition engines with Asian English accents - one of the high points of the semester.

There is a greater freedom in choosing a range of 'elective' modules from any faculty on campus - be it economics, mathematics, business, arts, physics, or law etc. I myself took a few electives in economics and arts, and am currently learning Mandarin. This is one area in which I found Singapore to be far more progressive. I genuinely felt, after doing those courses, that even a rudimentary appreciation of other disciplines - and not just specifically tailored engineering professional studies modules - is something to gain when attending university.

Looking for a professional placement

As you might have read in my previous diary entries, I am looking for a professional placement for the next academic year. Applying for jobs from thousands of kilometres away has been an impediment; I have had to let a few opportunities go because they required me to attend assessment centres or face-to-face interviews in the UK. It's been encouraging to hear from a quite a few among companies though that they do take this situation in consideration and arrange for telephone interviews instead.

I have also applied to work on a research project here in NTU over the summer on speech recognition algorithms. Fingers crossed that by April, I get confirmations for both the summer research programme and my professional placement.

Backpacking across Asia

It hasn't been all work though: I went backpacking to various parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Macau and Hong Kong. This semester promises to be a lot more hectic, but I hope to squeeze in a trip to at least one of Thailand, Vietnam or Philippines, if not all of them!

Biking to the ancient ruins of Borobodur, weekend trips to Malacca, catching the sunrise from Gunung Merapi - an active volcano that erupted tragically killing hundreds of resident, a week after I left - climbing hundreds of stairs to the top of a Buddhist monastery, glimpsing at the glitzy gambling dens of Macau, struggling to sleep amid the constant din of Kowloon markets...I must confess that I am awed by the rich cultural history and scenic beauty of South East Asia.

Here's hoping that this Year of the Rabbit brings further fulfilling academic and personal development opportunities!