Sixteen-year-olds in Singapore who leave school after O-levels can find themselves working on cutting edge industrial projects at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) the following year. They are put to work solving real life problems: from how to stretch the skin needed for grafts in separating Siamese twins to creating screening systems that prevent the spread of the deadly Sars epidemic.
The polytechnic's mission is to foster innovation and creativity using a "teaching factory" concept. Gone is the feeding of information to an assembly line of pupils; today, teams of students aged 16 upwards work with lecturers on ground-breaking projects in a simulated industrial environment on site. The design and layout of research laboratories mirror real businesses and retail outlets.
"We want our staff to be up to date, on the leading edge of technology," says NYP principal Chan Lee Mun, "so we ensure they continuously develop their capability by doing applied RD and industry projects, using the technology to find solutions."
The projects are commissioned by industry. "Say I have a company and want to produce a new type of mobile phone,"says Chan. "I come to NYP, sit with an engineer, discuss how to go about it, the cost, delivery time, quantity.
A project manager from NYP then takes over, engages staff and students to work on it for some weeks and deliver the product on time.
"We are only interested in working on cutting-edge products. We won't accept something that involves using old technology."
So far, students have developed a one-touch communications facility at Changi airport, the world's first automatic CD library, and a military audio communications system.
The philosophy at NYP, which has 12,000 students and 1,300 staff, is that lecturers are not merely teachers ; they are rotated so they can spend two or three-year stints working in industry.
The polytechnic believes that for many projects an integrated approach is needed, drawing on a number of subject disciplines. Students focus on foundation subjects of their discipline, be it design, biomedicine, or engineering and how to manage projects. In their third year, they will put this to work with other students and staff.
"I think the key to our teaching is our ability to work without borders," says Mr Chan. "Look at any product on the market and you will see it employs different disciplines together, for instance electronics, manufacturing, IT for software and product design.
"When people come together it makes a lot of innovation and creative thinking possible."