The Versatility of a 21st Century Engineer

When Prof Siu Wing Cheng was choosing what to study at university, he elected to take computer science because it was an exciting new field with huge potential for innovation and impact on society. Now, decades on in a world transformed by the information technology revolution, he continues to feel that way about his engineering career and, as Associate Dean of Engineering (Undergraduate Studies), is seeking to pass this passion on to young people and the community at large.

One of Prof Cheng’s main goals during his three-year term is to bring greater recognition to the amazing spectrum of engineering fields and jobs that await today’s potential School of Engineering (SENG) applicants. It is a timely task given the growing impact of technology and innovation locally and globally on areas from biomedicine to smart green cities to communications and climate change. And the setting up of the new Local (Undergraduate) Recruitment and Admissions Committee, chaired by Prof Cheng, is an indication of SENG’s commitment to raising awareness.

On his visits to local high schools, Prof Cheng certainly has a lot to share with SENG’s six departments offering the most comprehensive range of engineering disciplines in Hong Kong. Moreover, gone are the days of studying one major engineering subject largely through lecture-based study. At HKUST, there are minor programs, interdisciplinary degrees, cutting-edge independent study options in emerging fields, research projects with the University’s world-class academics and summer research programs at top US institutions. Overseas exchanges, internships, and mentoring programs are available. Confidence and communication abilities can be boosted in high-profile local and international student competitions and entrepreneurial endeavors while students can also use engineering know-how to benefit others through community service projects in and outside Hong Kong. Teaching and learning may include e-learning, groupwork and self-initiated projects.

In line with such a dynamic approach, SENG is seeking to draw in the high-flyers, independent thinkers and live wires, and leaders of the future. “We look for young people who are motivated to innovate,” Prof Cheng said. “We don’t want our students just to go to class. We want them out of the lecture hall, trying to build something or working in a team on an initiative of their own. The School really has a huge variety of activities to cater for students’ individual interests and characters.”

Greater diversity in students’ background is another key focus, especially encouraging more young women to see the social significance and career potential in engineering. SENG’s current percentage of 20% compares well internationally, but Prof Cheng is setting out to grow this further. It also means adding to the international intake through overseas trips to build knowledge of the School’s far-sighted bachelor programs and what Hong Kong as a city has to offer for non-local students, including the chance to remain for up to 12 months following graduation to look for work.

As one of HKUST’s earliest faculty members, Prof Cheng is well-suited to sharing the joys of innovation and first-time enterprise. He joined the now Computer Science and Engineering Department in 1992, one year after the University was established. It was a time when initiative was in much demand in setting up a department, education program, and the University overall, and he knows at first hand the exhilaration and satisfaction of being such a pioneer.

Hand-in-hand with diversity and adventurous programs, quality assurance is another of Prof Cheng’s domains to ensure that excellence remains embedded along with an enterprising outlook. Currently, he is overseeing preparations for the stringent Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) accreditation exercise of the School’s programs at the end of the year, but vigilance on quality is on-going, he noted. SENG was the first in Hong Kong to be granted HKIE provisional accreditation for its four-year programs under the outcome-based education approach in 2014.

On graduation, the SENG student experience of formal training in mastering technology, rigorous mathematics and logical and analytical skills, together with the development of global perspectives, self-starter capabilities, and a drive for lifelong learning, forms a highly valuable foundation on which a variety of careers can be built, Prof Cheng said. “We have had students who have become academics, entrepreneurs, who have climbed the company ladder, or actually changed profession,” he pointed out. “In my time, there were a few specific routes to take on graduation. These days, you are definitely not slotted into a particular job or narrow career path.”