Ho Sum Lim - President's Award For Teachers Finalist 2019

Lecturer and robot

Building a robot to shoot ping pong balls might seem like playtime to many students and lecturers. For the Year 1 students in the Diploma in Mechatronics & Robotics (DMRO) course, this is just another fun way of discovering their passion and unleashing their potential. This unique way of teaching and learning was introduced by Ho Sum Lim, when he took over as course chair back in 2009.

Back then, the DMRO course was not the first choice of many students. Many students in the course were also unmotivated and struggling with self-esteem issues. In a bid to change things, Sum Lim began speaking with stakeholders - graduates, current students, industry partners and the universities – to better understand industry trends. He then modified the curriculum to emphasise mechanical engineering and programming.

These decisions proved to be right as the move towards smart machines gathered speed with Google acquiring companies that built robots in 2013 followed by Singapore's Smart Nation drive. The relevance of the course helped Sum Lim convince his students.

Along the way, Sum Lim also realised that simply pushing the students to perform better was not sustainable, "In other words, we needed to put drive in the students rather than driving the students." Sum Lim started implementing changes to the DMRO pedagogy in 2010 and what needed to be changed was based on his "gut feel".

He decided to add the element of play and competition into the course to spark interest. "I let the students play with what they built." In their first year, they had to build a simple robot that shoots out a ping-pong ball.

He did the same thing for the second-year students, albeit with a more challenging project: Students had to build a robot with sensors that could detect and follow a reflective strip on a course. At the end of the project, the teams competed to see who could get around the course the fastest.

To further tap into his students' motivation, Sum Lim gave the final-year students the autonomy to choose their own team, the project they wanted to work on, and allowed them to work on it at their preferred time. This degree of freedom was almost unheard of at that time.

What started out as "gut feel" was actually Intrinsic Motivation at work when Sum Lim read "Drive" by Daniel Pink years later. On reading the book and other similar literature, he realised that what he had put into practice earlier actually falls into the four aspects of Intrinsic Motivation – Relatedness, Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy.

Fast forward to 2019, the DMRO course is now a popular one. Overall results of the students have improved and even the final-year projects are getting more impressive.

In recognition of his hard work and contributions to education, Sum Lim was nominated and became one of the finalists of the President's Award for Teachers 2019.

Sum Lim, who has since stepped down from the chair of the course, has a final piece of advice, "When students enjoy what they do, success is the only outcome."

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