What makes a student sacrifice the holidays for projects that carry no grades? A strong community, one that Singapore Polytechnic’s Diploma in Interior Design lecturer Fann Zhi Jie has worked hard to cultivate, so that students benefit from industry and vice versa. Mr Fann is a recipient of the President’s Award for Teachers 2023.
All over Ann Siang Hill, from its sidewalks and five-foot ways to its stretch of parkland, striking plywood structures had popped up. Intrigued passers-by could not resist exploring the structures, which were created by Mr Fann Zhi Jie’s Interior Design students. After weeks of ideating, designing, and building, the youths from Singapore Polytechnic (SP) were elated to witness the interest in their Year 3 project.
Scaling up project work in more ways than one
Equally gratified by the reception was Mr Fann. This was the inaugural 1:1 Scale Project, designed to bridge design theories with implementation and construction. Mr Fann had revamped the project after joining SP in 2013 -- he saw the potential to turn the routine model-building exercise into a real-world experience of an Interior Design project.
In revamping the project, Mr Fann made the project a team effort, rather than a solo project, to reflect the collaborative basis of design work in the real-world. To engage students, he used popular culture references to fire up students’ imagination. For example, students took inspiration from popular anime movie, Howl’s Moving Castle, to conceptualise and construct a transporter prototype.
With the 1:1 Scale Project, students learned to take full ownership of their work, and stretched their capacities not just in design, but also in research, design, user experience, construction and project management – all key skills required in the real-world.
The end-result may look more like an art installation than a traditional scale model, but it gets students – and passers-by— to think critically and deeply about the design process and outcome.
“It’s a bit like National Service,” the lecturer jokes. “Everyone is unsure about it, but after you’ve gone through it, you’re left with such fond memories!” In the nine years since revamping the 1:1 Scale Project, it has become the signature project of SP’s Diploma in Interior Design, and a core component of students’ design training.
Building a design community for students
While Mr Fann may be of proud of the 1:1 Scale Project, he does not hesitate when asked to name his greatest achievement – the Society of Interior Designers, Singapore Student Chapter (SIDS SC).
He had been teaching for about five years when SIDS, which champions the professionalism of interior designers and promotes good interior design, invited him to join its Council and set up a Student Chapter to nurture young talent. Mr Fann readily agreed. “Since my university days, I’ve tried to look beyond my own sphere of influence, towards contributing to the broader community,” he says.
“When you embrace the power of the community, you are creating connections, finding meaning and discovering possibilities. That is a lot more powerful than me standing in front of the classroom and hoping you believe me.”
After reaching out to the four Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) that run design courses, he launched the Student Chapter in 2019 with 35 students from across the institutions. They organised site visits to suppliers and other industry players, both locally and overseas, to build students’ knowledge beyond the curriculum. During the pandemic, they converted physical showcases to webinars and hackathons, to continue providing students opportunities to build confidence and learn from one another.
Today, over 800 IHL students are active in the Chapter, and Mr Fann has watched them develop their interest and skills in the discipline through authentic learning experiences. It is a joy, he says, to see the youths from different institutions connect: “They’re talking about the latest styles, tapping on one another’s knowledge.” They also instinctively benchmark themselves against their peers, which spurs their own efforts, and drives many to step forward to lead in both the SC and at SP.
Bringing juniors and seniors together for mutual benefit
A community benefits from a richer mix of profiles – this is what compelled Mr Fann to initiate the idea for a Vertical Live Projects programme, where Year 3 students partner their juniors on their industry projects.
Through the project, juniors would level up their skills and discover new viewpoints, while the seniors get to polish up their communication and mentoring skills. Most importantly, all would learn that everyone can bring something to the table.
Were the Year 3 students receptive to this initiative? No, they balked at having to work with their juniors, whose lack of experience could affect the project grades.
The idea was aspirational, he concedes. So, in an out-of-the-box move, he took the programme out of the curriculum and made it optional. For a moment, he wasn’t sure who would show up for a week-long holiday programme that was not credit-bearing.
As it turned out, there was no need to worry. Every year, there has been a steady take-up of about 30 students, who are attracted by the opportunity to work with real clients and receive coaching from professsional designers; along the way, they learn to mentor and encourage their juniors, and the cycle repeats when the juniors become seniors.
The projects also see real results. Last year, a traditional bakery engaged a Vertical Live Projects team to create an exhibition booth that would appeal to Gen Zs. An idea mooted by a Year 2 student to include station games and TikTok videos is now on the cards.
Bridging learning and work in the real world
As part of SP's work in providing consultancy services to local Small and Medium Enterprises, Mr Fann actively places his students on these consultancy projects to provide students with real-world opportunities to apply their skills. For instance, they had helped a hostel pivot to a cafe business during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This benefits the students because they are working on real projects outside their internship,” he says. Again, the teams he puts together comprise senior and junior students, and even alumni. Indeed, Mr Fann’s students are so invested in the SIDS SC community that they often return to help out after graduation.
Mr Fann is always ready to switch out his two hats, as an educator from SP, and a leading member of SIDS. Networking through the professional association gives him better insights into industry needs so that he can anchor course curricula to industry-ready competencies. As an educator, he advises industry partners on how they can better support students’ learning and participate in shaping the workforce of tomorrow. In recognition of his efforts, the professional body nominated him as Singapore’s Personality of the Year (Design Educator) at the 2022 Asia Pacific Designers Association Awards.
He is passionate when he says this, “When you embrace the power of the community, you are creating connections, finding meaning and discovering possibilities. That is a lot more powerful than me standing in front of the classroom and hoping you believe me.”
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