An undergraduate in the University Scholars Programme (USP)
takes eight first-tier modules. Of these, one is a compulsory
writing module and the other seven, designed to provide breadth
to the curriculum, are broadly classified into two domains:
Science & Technology (ST) and Humanities & Social
Sciences (HSS). Currently, students from the science-based
faculties take three and four modules from the ST and HSS
domains respectively; students from arts-based faculties take
three HSS modules and four ST modules.
From the above situation, it is evident that USP students
need to cope with a rather demanding distributional requirement.
In addition, although the modules in the Scholars Programme
are not difficult in terms of factual content, they are generally
somewhat sophisticated. Modules in the ST domain begin discussions
of science/engineering/technological/mathematical concepts
generally at a rather elementary level, but proceed rapidly
to rather sophisticated levels within one semester. The same
situation applies to HSS modules.
For instance in Fundamental Concepts of Physical Reality,
a module that I am familiar with and had taught in semester
1 of AY 2002/03, the discussion began with the students writing
a paper on their perceptions of physical phenomena, proceeding
to Newtonian ideas of absolute space and absolute time, continuing
through to Einstein’s relativistic space-time, and then
ending with a discussion of the equivalence of mass and energy.
Such a progression (typical of Scholars modules) is meant
to bring the students to a non-trivial (perhaps, second-year
level) appreciation of major ideas in the field even though
each module generally begins from ‘scratch’.
Given the above, a problem faculty members teaching Scholars
modules can expect is the difficulty of conducting a sophisticated
discussion of concepts when a significant number of the students
have either no background or only a rudimentary understanding
of the subject. This problem is especially more acute for
the ST modules perhaps because of the widespread perception
that science, mathematics and engineering are difficult or,
worse, merely for those who indulge in technical matters.
In any case, the faculty members teaching ST modules in
the Scholars Programme have recently started discussions on
how self-help material in science/mathematics can be compiled
for the students. The aim is not to use this material as a
substitute for the initial elementary/introductory material
that each Scholars module invariably contains, but to help
students recall what they ought to have encountered in high
school. It is hoped that this effort can help some students
who come into the programme with deficient backgrounds in
science and mathematics. At least, if the students feel less
discomfort with science/mathematics, it would be a big step
forward in helping them to handle their work in the ST modules.
The compiled material is also intended to help students who
have gone for two years of national service recall some essentials
of what they have learnt in high school.
The material that we hope to put together is rather simple.
There are numerous introductory books on science and mathematics
that can be used. Besides, many introductory physics texts
also have mathematical appendices that are focused on the
basic mathematical skills/knowledge required to ‘do
the physics’. A number of faculty members are currently
looking through these books and appendices in order to work
out a ‘roadmap’ to guide the students through
this self-help material. Though this ‘roadmap’
is probably going to be our only input, it is deemed to be
rather important given the huge amount of available introductory
materials in science/mathematics. Indicated on the roadmap
will be a sequence of readings, specific exercises or problems
found in specific pages/paragraphs of selected books that
the students should work through according to a timetable.
In addition to readings/exercises from texts, we are looking
at including CD-ROMs as interactive learning materials. As
the students work through the path indicated on the roadmap,
they will continually self-evaluate their progress.
We have discussed some operational details, and one possible
operation mode is as follows:
- An evaluation/assessment will be set during the admission
- Results of the assessment will be used during student-mentor
discussions to determine if the student requires the self-help
- The student will be encouraged to make use of the material
if he/she does not have a strong background. However, the
material will also be made available to everyone,
- The student will keep a log as he/she works through the
material. Though faculty members will be available for help/consultation,
the students will have to put in effort to work through
the exercises/problems (i.e. it will be a student-driven
effort and no model answers will be provided until the students
have worked out their own solutions), and
- There will be no set time frame to work through the material
Ultimately, the self-help effort is meant to achieve two
things: to help students learn/reacquaint themselves with
some introductory mathematics/science, and perhaps more importantly,
to boost the students’ confidence in dealing with mathematics