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Sakmongkol ak 47

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Walla's 10-point Guide to University Excellence

Sakmongkol wrote an article on CN Yang, the American-Chinese Nobel Laureate. He got his Nobel Prize in Physics. The article was intended to stimulate our thinking on how to create 1st rate scientists in Malaysia. This quest is also linked to the larger issue of deteriorating standards on Malaysian public universities. Sakmongkol is not interested in the public quarrel between a former VC and the current deputy minister of higher education. The quarrels because pride is compromised, does nothing to improve the standard of our universities.

As expected, a very perceptive comment came from a regular visitor to Sakmongkol’s blog. The visitor is the intrepid one who goes by the name of Walla. He is the night stalker. The invisible man who comes to lighten up everyone’s life. Sakmongkol feels it not fair, not to share his thoughts on this very important subject. How to make our universities excellent academic institutions.

Yang may have a point on China's scientific prowess being in need of MORE CAPITAL TO BOOTSTRAP THEIR NEXT SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION. After all, that country had been cloistered for many years from the rest of the world despite it once having some distinction of scientific prowess when Europe wore leaves. But with USD2 Trillion in reserves and as one of only a few nations left whose economy remains relatively unscathed by the present global financial turmoil, harbour no doubt that they will be focusing more deeply on making it happen despite their size, multitude, diversity and complexity.

The opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics leave no doubt that POLITICAL WILL can propel waves of change once they set their minds to the task. But, of course, as with every great endeavour, there will be equally great challenges. The biggest of that is HOW TO CHANGE MINDSETS.

For science education, it will require the whole paradigm to shift from facts manipulation to ideas creation. One is fixed, the other nebular. Nebular things, such as ideas pinged back and forth like sonar waves between two submarines, work best in a fertile climate of questioning assumptions, following arguments to the bitter end, thinking out of not just the box but also the self, and plain vanilla interactions between diverse and curious minds free from preset preferences. Such as found in this very blog.

The best ideas of Einstein, for instance, came when talking to a friend as they walked the Alps, although his wife would have attested they came when he was cradling their first child. Sakmongkol has given some good suggestions long overdue to find a new propulsion system for our universities.

But I would like to add three minor points, if I may:

One, politics should not go into the universities; if socioeconomic engineering is needed to be done, do it as a parallel track so as not to lose anymore the next generations of the best we can produce; if as a result this creates dichotomy in society, so be it - better to have two than none; there will be closure later because every situation is dynamic and so too what someone will be;

Two, putting equipment, funds and freedom alone on the table and just saying 'think' is not enough; they must be channelled to the right calibre of people, not those who have no bent for the eurekatization of their entire existence in pursuit of the pure light of truth; however to do the transfer, they better sit down, bite the bullet and work it out; maybe shift all to one separate institution and refill with the best bar none. Identity of the institution changed? What's in a name?

Three, don't underestimate the importance of the schools - after all, that's where the feeders to the universities are. Brilliant students, regardless whether they are in national or vernacular schools must be nurtured, supported and encouraged to be the best they can. In fact one thing the MOE will shy away from admitting - when the little dot down there recruits for their universities, they will pull first the best from the vernacular schools - because they know these are really the best trained in science and maths from our country. It's therefore a joke not to support them. It's in fact a travesty to exercise neglect on them. We lose a student today, they gain a biotechnology director tomorrow. If we are really bipeds, we shouldn't be shooting ourselves in the foot. A few other miserable points:

Four, run each campus to intermingle the denizens of different faculties; more student interactions across disciplines; Kekule dreamt of the benzene ring as a dance; maybe he saw a show that night; mental flowering, that's the thing.

Five, foster a numerate society; that requires more accurate and up-to-date data on everything so that the media and the readers can interact and analyse, write and discuss, remodel and extrapolate; the Japanese society is understood to be number-crazy for everything; here numbers shouldn't just be for betting; in China, you can see simple folks giving their comments on candlestick stock charts and management gurus regaling the latest while their bookshops are easily bigger than our national library in content and replete with the latest from the shelves of the west, duly translated into mandarin; in fact publications from the universities, public and private, as well as from the colleges, including theses by students, papers presented in seminars and by think-tanks, archives in the national archives, etc should be digitised and webified for open access as standard procedure; as they are, they're not worth much really but if we don't start somewhere, how can the movement grow?

Six, expand the role of the counsellor and reintroduce physical education in schools; teenagers, especially, will have questions on careers and values; they will need the right methods on how to study while under the natural influence of hormonal changes which afflict the concentration of most; in fact, those are the best formative years to inculcate something which no one seems to want to say it out - how to get excited about clever ideas. An example of a clever idea is the above first diagram. Do it like a whodunit. Hide the clues. Give tips. Reward success. Provide guides and measures ..but the end result must be 'ooh! this is SOoo clever!'. Look at the way we are doing things here. Moral-101 is to be memorized word for word. That is the fastest way to dull a keen mind. Why not tell a story and ask them to debate what's the moral of it, ending the lesson with a clear and concise summary by the teacher, with examples on how to apply the principles in real life? And physical exercises not only help reduce obesity which is crippling half the population, they also provide some balance for the mental activities. Now they only exercise when they go for NS; some will die from it.

Seven, the world's biggest open library is the worldwide web; unfortunately most of its content where useful is in the English language; that aside, the worldwide web you are using to read this is not the worldwide web i am using to read things. There are at least a few more www out there and they are like nothing you have seen before. How clueless can the leaders be who decide the future of our young?

Eight, why the US is so great in scientific research is their aggressive focus on pushing all the right buttons; there is a triple helix model for govt-industry-university cooperation; a linchpin for that is the patenting system; our people don't do enough research because the motivation is stumped by the lack of funds to pay for the patenting of their finds, plus a few other factors; even the venture capital aspect in industry is abbreviated; there is another thing about research; being able to pick the right topic to research is also extremely important to optimize research resources; the US, Germany and Japan are particularly profound in this matter, especially at the masters level upwards; do we even have that being incubated? knowing how UM's plasma physics unit (once famous throughout the region) has disappeared, methinks not;

Ninth, keep in contact; today's dullard may be tomorrow's gem; there was one guy who scored 5A's in the HSC, topped engineering in UM, left to work in Singapore, rose to be best employee in a multinational, returned to lecture here but with some sparks still left under the belt on the sort of technical knowledge on circuits that would find use in an invention, if it comes to that; probably thousands of them are like that; brightest human capital of the land ending in some corner after many economic cycles where they could instead be part of a national strategic spearhead to make things really jive in this country.
Tenth, end with a story, some data and a quote; once i had attended a seminar on telemedicine in Boston; after that, instead of the usual cultural tour, I headed alone to Cambridge as in Harvard and MIT; i wanted to find out why they're great; as i walked the grounds, i concluded it's not so much the hardware and buildings as it is the software of wanting to maintain excellence all the time and staying connected to the real world on what's important and impactful for the future. It being a Sunday I didn't expect to meet Michael Porter at Harvard so I went into the bookshop to stand a good hour reading Barro on economic growth; after that i sat at the steps of Barton and looked at the river, then walked to the world-famous MIT media lab and sat at the lobby. Out came a young man and we talked; he said he was flying to Tokyo and yes he has heard about our MSC but no the labs out of bounds. So off i went to walk the MIT grounds. There was a box on a table for handovers for a tutorial. It was Physics 101. Intriguing was the nature of the questions. Instead of the usual 'use the right equation to plug these numbers to get the result', they were more like 'derive from first principles your own equation to get the result from these data and analyze how it would change as the situation changes.' So early, they demand they think on their own. That's the US' SECOND best, and it picks the best of their technical minds of the whole nation. One shudders to think what's the tutorial for Phy-101 at the other one on the other coast - Caltech.

Now, Sakmongkol does not know about you dear readers- this piece by Walla gives Sakmongkol the goose bumps.


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