Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

Engineering the mechanics of kindness

02 Sep 2021

Being motivated to be their best selves and to serve the community are a major part of Jeff Koh’s lesson plans.  

Koh Hock Tong, Institute of Technical Education, President’s Award for Teachers 2021 Recipient

A smart walking cane for the elderly that “sees” and “warns” its user when the floor is wet and slippery.

A wheelchair with self-locking wheels inspired by airport trolleys.

A handy device equipped with a hydraulic lift and a lateral slider that allows for the safe and easy transfer of a wheelchair-bound person between a car and a wheelchair.   

These state-of-the-art, brainy inventions may sound like they came out of some high-tech engineering lab run by Elon Musk, but they are really the brainchild of ITE students at the Assistive Technology Makeathon.

Emblematic of ITE College Central’s push towards social-conscious engineering and innovation, these three award-winning devices make daily life easier for the elderly and those with disabilities. It is also the perfect showcase of the fabrication skills and knowledge of the college’s Mechanical Technology students, mentored by their Section Head and Makeathon organiser, Koh Hock Tong (better known as Jeff among his ITE College Central colleagues and students).

Giving students a sense of purpose

Jeff is a man on a mission.

The Section Head for Nitec in Mechanical Technology at ITE College Central came into teaching with a clear purpose – to motivate students to be their best selves, for themselves and for society.

The affinity that Jeff feels for his students stems from his own bumpy start in school. Calling himself an unmotivated student back in secondary school, he took two attempts to pass his O-levels.

It was not until he entered Singapore Polytechnic that Jeff found the impetus to strive for success. Thanks to the guidance of his lecturer who would patiently break down complex problems into simpler parts, he emerged as one of the top students in the Electrical Engineering course.

Buoyed by the momentum, this once lackadaisical learner went on to achieve First Class Honours for his university engineering degree. After graduation, Jeff got a job as a process engineer and was promoted in two years. But at the back of his mind, he was always thinking of the help he received from his lecturer that turned his life around. He thought of ways he could pass this on – including writing a book on how to help people unlock their potential. When he saw an ITE recruitment ad for lecturers, he took the plunge and found the sweet spot that married his love for engineering and nurturing the younger generation.

“I tell my students that I was once like them. I wanted them to know that they can be successful as long as they put in the effort. My message to all my classes is always the same: Your result is proportional to your effort.”

Building skillsets, changing lives

Coaxing students to stay the course is just the first step. For those who come from difficult backgrounds or face learning challenges, Jeff and his fellow lecturers go the distance to keep their students on track and motivated.

Students who do not have a conducive learning environment at home are invited to study at the school library. Jeff would encourage them to look for him at his office if they need help. For the Mandarin-speaking student who struggled to understand him in class, Jeff would go through the material again with him after class, but this time, in Chinese.

Some may also wrestle with self-doubt, having struggled with their studies in primary and secondary school. That’s why Jeff encourages his students to participate in competitions and organise makeathons, so they have opportunities to showcase their products. If they win, it’s a form of recognition for them. And even if they don’t, they would have learned to work in teams and present their products to a panel of judges — valuable life skills that benefit them in the long run.

“For some of them, it could be the first time winning an award… They feel like they achieved something, and they feel proud of their work and project,” he explained. “We need to give them the confidence to progress in the later stages of their lives.”

A leg up in the working world

Jeff also prepares his students for life by developing in them soft skills that will put them in good stead in the workforce.

Before his second-year students participate in a six-month internship, for example, he gets them to think about this question, “How can you value add to the company?”

He developed a half-day design thinking course where students are taught to identify pain points that the company may face, through observations or asking questions, develop and pitch ideas to solve the problem, as well as brainstorm ways to test these solutions.

“We don’t just want them to go through the motion of an attachment…six months is a long time, we hope they can contribute to the company by applying their skills or suggesting ideas to improve things.”

One student put this learning into application during his internship, when he noticed that the workshop tools were in a mess and the technicians had trouble locating them. He put forth a suggestion on how to organise the tools and mark the tool cabinet up clearly – a simple idea that was well-received and implemented by the company.

For those who were keen to join the workforce right after graduation, Jeff tapped on his industry contacts to hold seminars where he would invite major firms such as Exxon Mobil to engage his students about their sector. Besides speaking about the technology they utilise in their business, these companies would also share career opportunities.

“Students can see that their skill sets are of value and relevant to the industry. By doing so, we hope to reduce any leakage of engineering graduates to non-engineering industries.”

Manufacturing face shields and other community applications

The college’s push towards assistive-technology projects is also Jeff’s brainchild. Such projects tap on the strengths of the students in his Mechanical Engineering course, which has a heavy focus on fabrication.

These skills came to the fore at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. The College’s authentic learning internship programme for students was interrupted when engineering companies could not operate during the Circuit Breaker.

Jeff and his fellow lecturers noticed face masks and face shields were in severe shortage at nursing homes at the time. So as an alternative to workplace internship, they decided to marry product development and community service. Under their guidance and tutelage, their students designed and developed face shields for the care staff working at these nursing homes.

Some 1,200 face shields were manufactured with the help of corporate sponsors and the entire Engineering faculty pitched in to assemble them. This quick pivot allowed the school to give its students a meaningful hands-on learning experience even during the period of Home-Based Learning. 

As Jeff put it, “We hope what the students take away when they leave school are the skillsets that we taught them and a heart for the community. We want them to be someone of good character who also cares for society.”

Staying ahead of the curve even outside of school

As the Section Head looking after his staff’s learning needs, Jeff looks out for opportunities for them to keep abreast of the latest tech and engineering trends and industry relevant knowledge. They also enjoy working together on informal passion projects outside of school hours.

One such project is the Follow-Me Trolley, an invention that they came up with to help their older colleagues cart heavy equipment around the school campus. While the device was simple — essentially a trolley mounted atop a robot with wheels — the programming involved was challenging. Using Lidar, a remote sensing technology that uses light to measure distances, Jeff and his team taught themselves programming and built a successful working model.

As this avid life-long learner explained, “If they see their Section Head being very active in the project they are engaged in, it will inspire them to innovate and to find out more. I’m not just asking them to learn, I am learning together with them.”