For many years, the local public has had the notion that university engineering graduates are strong in theory because that is what we teach here. Polytechnic engineering students, however, are practice oriented because they are given more opportunities to use their hands in the classroom. When the NTU engineering schools were set up in 1984 the press emphasised that their graduates are better at hands-on engineering whereas NUS engineering graduates shun practical work because they are trained to do research. The question then is: Can an engineer function properly as an armchair expert? Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective in Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, is a classic example of an armchair detective who solves mysteries by simply sitting and thinking in his armchair instead of combing for physical evidence. This surely is an extreme case of employing theory to the exclusion of all else. It might work in fiction, but certainly not in real life as I shall attempt to explain in this paper.
The role of theory
Theory is essential for a thorough understanding of the principles of any subject of study, be it medicine, law or engineering. There has to be a set of rules upon which premises and assumptions are made, failing which any project one undertakes will merely be ‘a shot in the dark’ and no one can be sure whether it will work. For example, when one sets out to build a bridge, certain theoretical assumptions which have been proven reliable through the generations, need to be made. Theory is hence the building blocks on which practice is based.
The role of practice
Theory without practice does not get one anywhere. It is easy to predict how a part of a machine will work by calculation, but it may not work as expected because of factors beyond one’s control such as frictional force, changes in ambient temperature or inhomogeneous material properties. With some practical experience, an engineer would be able to assess the situation more accurately and get closer to the truth.
Combining theory and practice
The ideal method of teaching balances theory and practice in correct proportions. However, the ‘correct proportion’ varies from subject to subject. Most courses in NUS are four-year courses. With rapid advancements in science and technology, more specialised modules are being spawned by new technology in the industry. This means more essential theory to cover within the four years of classroom education, making it increasingly difficult for tertiary education curriculum planners to tailor the engineering curriculum to equip students for industry. Furthermore, heeding Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s advice to “teach less…so that our children can learn more”1 we are now left with even less time to cover all the topics students ought to know before entering the working world.
Still, we need to allocate some time to practical training. In NUS, medical students go for clinical postings starting from the third year and they spend one year doing housemanship before becoming full-fledged doctors. In the Faculty of Engineering, we used to make it compulsory for all our students to do a 6-month industrial attachment. This has since been made optional because many students complained that they were wasting time doing menial tasks in the companies. However, the 6-month industrial attachment scheme is still compulsory in NTU. On top of that, NTU students need to do an in-house practical training stint during the long vacation at the end of their second year. Although we do not have such compulsory vacation training in NUS, we make up for it with a full year of rigorous training in mechanical engineering design during the third year of the course. In the first semester, ME3101 “Mechanical Engineering Design Part 1” requires students to do a paper design of their projects. In the second semester, students have to fabricate their paper design for the module ME3102 “Mechanical Engineering Design Part 2”. The final year project, which is compulsory for all engineering courses in universities across the world, will be the climax in which every engineering student proves his engineering skills in a project that employs engineering theory in a practical context.
There is something to be said for the rule that one should teach as much theory as possible in a university, since it is probably the last dose of theory the student is ever going to get. Once the student enters the working world, he has the rest of his life to gain practical experience. Unfortunately, many companies do not see the importance of having a good grounding in engineering theory; they prefer to hire someone who can be put immediately on the front line because he/she has had plenty of practical experience during his university days. While hiring a ready-made worker may be convenient in the short term, the worker may run out of steam in the long run due to a lack of grounding in the fundamental principles.
If a student asks me whether his engineering design will work, I could either explain the fundamentals of engineering to him and show him how it will work, or I could draw from my experience in research and consultancy work and tell him that I have tried it and found it unfeasible. Both methods will satisfy the student, but it is the explanation of fundamentals that will ‘teach’ him how to ‘fish’ for the rest of his life. That is why although practice is essential for being a good engineer, theory should not be compromised at university. The latter should be taught first before putting a student through practical training. The new concept of problem-based learning, if not handled wisely, could end up putting the cart before the horse (i.e. practice before theory).
Balancing practice and theory is easier said than done. It has been a bone of contention for many curriculum planners. The more time a student spends on learning theory, the less time he has for practical work, and vice versa. It is therefore necessary for each faculty and department to work out an optimal solution to produce students that are well balanced in theory and practice, so that they are in a position to continue improving themselves for the rest of their lives.
1 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally 2004 Speech, “Our Future of Opportunity and Promise”. Sunday 22 August 2004, at the University Cultural Centre, NUS. (Last accessed: 4 July 2005).