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Living and Breathing Science and Technology
Reflections from a Raffles Institution Alumni Studying in MIT — The Foundations Needed for an Education in Engineering
by Ronald Chan Wai Hong

ver since my childhood days, the mechanisms behind the workings of the world have always been fascinating to me, and it was with joy and pleasure that I embarked on this lifelong journey in the discovery, and hopefully some advancement, of science and technology. I'm currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I am very grateful to my teachers and peers from Raffles Institution for developing my interest in the natural and applied sciences. Throughout the course of my studies in Singapore, I was extremely fortunate to have many opportunities not only to challenge myself in these areas, but also to engage in rigorous discussions with others over various academic topics and technical procedures.

When I was much younger, I seemed to have a peculiar obsession with transportation systems. I would fiddle around with toy cars and car park models all day, draw up maps of imaginary road networks and use my hardcover Enid Blyton storybooks to build bridges. I don't recall most of the stories in the books, but I vaguely remember committing to memory which books were more suitable for use as support columns! As school and personal computers came by, I moved on to homework and computer games, but playing with these cars and models remains one of my fondest memories. I guess that with my youth and naivety, I had hoped to figure out the nuances behind these large networks and systems, and eventually the world. It was this desire to create organization in my mind and seek explanations for why things were the way they were that I became interested in the governing laws and phenomena of the physical world. (You must imagine my "dismay" when I first stumbled upon quantum mechanics!)

As I entered primary school, I was formally introduced to the world of science through formal curricula. Back then, Singapore's education system was still undergoing a transformation of sorts, and there was considerable rote learning in the various subjects. Nevertheless, I remember a phase in my life when I was actively pursuing some of the Young Scientist Badges handed out by the Primary Science Activities Club. Granted, a couple of the tasks seemed somewhat inaccessible to a typical primary school student, but earning the badges provided some measure of fun, and more significantly, an exposure to the intricate aspects of the natural and man-made worlds that I would never have encountered in the standard curriculum. This further piqued my interest in science and technology.

Later in Raffles Institution, I joined my school's Science Club. It was an eye-opening experience, seeing my seniors' laboratory demonstrations, powerful air-propelled water bottle rockets and spinning tops made of bicycle wheels. Some of their constructions still elude me, but it was indeed exciting to see the homemade devices that one could build to illustrate simple scientific principles, and also to experience these devices first-hand with guidance from one's seniors. As it became our turn to be seniors, we attempted to extend a similar spirit of innovation to our juniors by organizing small-scale model building competitions for the general school population.

Raffles Institution offered its students numerous opportunities to pursue their research interests out of class. Personally, I pursued 3 different projects in my years at Raffles Institution: an investigation of the reaction of the Singapore tarantula to its environment, a simulation of the formation of ant trails using MATLAB and a study of the anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties of chemical compounds found in cyanobacteria from Pulau Hantu. While most of these projects did not yield very significant results, I learnt many valuable life lessons from these adventures, including the importance of patience, perseverance and commitment to one's priorities.

Many people have said that learning never stops, and I have indeed experienced this in the true sense of the phrase. After completing National Service, I returned to school to help my juniors prepare for a series of Young Physicists' Tournaments, and I was extremely humbled by the experience. Having gone through more years of school and academic training than my juniors, I did expect to share some of my past experiences with them, but in retrospect, I may have taken away more from the competitions than my juniors did. The problems in the tournaments were designed to have no clear solution or even a clear approach to adopt, and in our attempts to guide our juniors along the paths to take for the various problems, our understanding of the various scientific concepts involved was severely tested. It was a gruelling but extremely enriching experience discovering different approaches to research and taking some form of responsibility for assisting in the navigation of relatively unchartered waters.

All in all, these various exploits added to my breadth of exposure to the various realms of science and technology, equipping me with a good range of experiences to adapt to new situations and phenomena. In general, the academic rigor that Singaporean teachers have adopted in their lessons creates a certain level of precision of thought and a good level of academic intuition that has allowed the typical Singaporean student to demonstrate conceptual mastery and academic competence.

Studying engineering at MIT has been an eye-opening experience. MIT's motto is "Mens et Manus", which translates from Latin as "Mind and Hand", and MIT's mascot is the beaver, who is known for building its own dams and structures and is viewed by some as Mother Nature's very own engineer. Indeed, my experience here has been especially electrifying in terms of the hands-on education offered. In my short stint here, I have taken courses involving the exploration of both ancient and modern materials, including wood, plaster and even molten metal, and also the machining of simple items like DC motors and flashlights. What I felt was more valuable, though, was not the content of the courses, but rather the stimulation from learning in an environment that celebrates collaboration for creation. For example, all students are welcome to make use of the various machine shops here whenever the shops are open, as long as they are adequately trained to operate the machinery; several courses also allow students to explore their own ideas and design their own contraptions as part of their final projects.

Having spent a year in America, differences between the various education systems around the world emerge from time to time. While having conceptual mastery helps in seeing the big picture, especially when a typical course delves into the technical details from time to time, the training from the Singaporean education system could do more in building physical intuition and connections between theories and their real-life applications - things that other students may be more comfortable with. Each system has its relative strengths and weaknesses, and immersing myself in a new academic environment has allowed me to appreciate these attributes better.

I am definitely very grateful for this valuable opportunity to experience science and technology through different lenses, and I have the guidance from my teachers and peers to thank for this. I will be pursuing a career in research after my graduation, and hopefully will be able to repay their kindness by engaging in the development of products that would benefit the society at large.

If there's one thing I would change if I could go back in time, it would definitely be to engage in my education at a more hands-on level in the earlier years. For those of you out there still toiling your way through school and finding yourself lost in equations and theories that may seem distant at times, do not be disheartened! Talk to your teachers after class about pursuing side projects that better develop the concepts learnt in class, persuade your parents to bring you to hobby shops to pick up supplies to build your own little circuits or models, and always look around you and try to use the concepts in class to explain the peculiarities of Nature that you may stumble upon along the way. Even if you don't end up pursuing a technical career, you'll appreciate what you've learnt in class better, and who knows, maybe find a new area of interest that you've never encountered before!

Ronald Chan Wai Hong graduated from Raffles Institution with straight A's and is the recipient of the Best A-level Physics Student award from the Institute of Physics Singapore. He is also credited with being the only Singaporean to win a Gold award in the International Physics Olympaid 2008 that year. He is currently a second-year undergraduate studying engineering in MIT under an A*STAR Overseas Scholarship and is serving as the president of the MIT Singapore Students Society (MITSSS). He intends to continue to pursue a PhD after graduation and aspires to work in a cutting edge research facility in one of A*STAR's Research Institutes. For more information about this article, please contact Ronald Chan at ronaldc@mit.edu

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