The University of Singapore keeps COVID in check with technology and discipline


SINGAPORE – The National University of Singapore (NUS), known for its innovative approach to education, has managed to keep the classroom on campus largely open during the COVID-19 pandemic by finding clever ways to avoid the deadly virus to keep in check.

Since the pandemic started more than a year ago, the school only suspended classes from April to June last year when the government put a partial lockdown.

One person who has played a key role in the university’s antivirus efforts is NIS President Tan Eng Chye. To help ensure the safety of students and faculty, Tan has taken a number of measures, including zone restrictions assigning students to different areas of campus and testing dormitory wastewater for traces of the virus.

But even with these safeguards in place, the university’s recent decision to cancel its long-planned in-person enrollment underscores the difficulties educational institutions are facing during the pandemic.

“The current situation is very fluid and the outlook is uncertain,” Tan wrote on May 20 in a communication to staff and students. “As such, I have communicated to both the 2020 class and the 2021 class that the university cannot hold any longer in-person admissions ceremonies for the two cohorts, which were scheduled from June 17 to the end of July 2021.

The move followed the government’s announcement the previous day that all elementary, secondary and junior college students would move to full home study due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“The decision to switch to online ceremonies was not made lightly,” wrote Tan, who was determined to hold a personal graduation ceremony. NUS couldn’t do this last year because of the pandemic.

The university had planned a series of beginnings. The idea was to divide around 69,000 people – a total of 23,000 graduates from classes 2020 and 2021 and their parents – into groups of 750 people and award degrees three times a day for about a month.

The graduation is not only the last major milestone for students and their parents, but also an important symbol for NUS, which underlines the importance of personal exchange in education.

NUS President Tan Eng Chye poses in front of well-known alumni.

Tan has been dealing with the novel corona virus since the end of January last year. A colleague at the time told him that something serious was happening in China that prompted him to cancel his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On his way back to Singapore, he decided to take home around 50 NIS students studying in China. Finally, he urged all NIS students abroad to come home as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage around the world.

Tan worked to keep face-to-face tuition going despite the pandemic by collecting and analyzing information on a daily basis through a WhatsApp group attended by deans of all faculties and senior officials.

Insisting on maintaining on-campus learning for classes with fewer than 50 students, he said, “It is important to continue having this face-to-face interaction because being fully online is not as effective in terms of learning. ” . “

NUS students on a campus meadow before the pandemic: The university has divided its three campuses into five zones to limit contact between students during the outbreak. (Photo courtesy of NUS)

To keep the coronavirus off campus, NUS initially divided its three campuses into five zones to minimize student interaction for about six months after resuming in-person classes last June.

All students, lecturers and employees entering and leaving university buildings are monitored on campus via WiFi and an app. If people stay in a zone other than their assigned zone for more than 30 minutes, the app prompts them to return to their area immediately.

While the Singapore government spearheaded efforts to keep track of people entering and leaving offices and business complexes, NUS promptly developed and implemented such measures itself on campus.

Last December, NUS also introduced a system to check the dormitory wastewater for signs of infection. After small amounts of COVID-19 virus material were found in a dormitory in March, all 400 or so residents were quarantined and tested for infection. All tests were negative.

Tan shrugged off the praise for the system and said, “It’s actually very simple. I would say most universities with a technical faculty can do that.” But not many universities can act so quickly and decisively to contain a crisis. According to Tan, NUS has been ready to form a crisis management team at any time since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

A student lounge on the NUS campus after the end of the semester in June. The university has endeavored to maintain classroom teaching as much as possible.

In addition to focusing on maintaining face-to-face teaching, NUS is working to provide career support to students. NUS is known for its NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) – decade-old internship programs designed to help students develop entrepreneurial skills in startups like Silicon Valley, Beijing and Israel. However, many students had to return home during the pandemic. To help them complete their courses, NUS arranged internship programs with more than 100 domestic companies.

One of these interns was Biomedical Engineering Major Jeremy Ong. In mid-January 2020, he went to Stockholm on the NOC program, only to have to return home two months later. Before his internship, Ong worked with fellow students on a project to train doctors and medical students in virtual reality technology. He couldn’t skip his internship at a health startup in Sweden. When his stay was interrupted due to the COVID, NUS offered him a recommendation that helped him secure another internship opportunity as a project manager at a Singaporean startup.

After graduating from NUS in June, Ong plans to build a VR-assisted physician education business this year. “The whole program, both in Stockholm and Singapore, opened my eyes. It was really an experience. I felt like if I didn’t choose NOC, I wouldn’t get it in school. It was something that only NOC offers. ” he said.

Jeremy Ong, right, plans to start a medical device startup with his fellow students later this year. (Courtesy photo by Jeremy Ong)

NUS is now offering internships on campus to students who cannot find a job. Amid the worst economic climate since Singapore gained independence, only 75% of last year’s graduates found work, up from 90% before the pandemic. Nonetheless, NUS managed to close the gap with internship programs and government support. The university also set up a fund to help financially troubled students whose parents have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

In early May, Tan said that NUS was still operating “60%”. It will not be able to reopen the NOC and its student exchange program at the beginning of the next semester in August.

“We believe our students must face real problems. The experience component is more difficult to replicate, ”said Tan. “So we’re more concerned about making sure we send our NOC students out first.”

Tan identified three key elements for higher education in the 21st century: lifelong learning, a broad intellectual foundation, and more interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

The NUS constantly adapts its curriculum to the needs of the times. From August, for example, engineering students can be taught at the Faculty of Design and Environment and vice versa. The end of COVID-19 is not yet in sight, but NUS is already looking beyond the pandemic.

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