UTAR looks ahead with STEM focus

‘Big investment’: The aerial view of the teaching hospital, which will be fully operational by early next year.

AS the world looks set to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0), there is no denying the urgency to develop future-ready talent who can fulfil the needs of society, industry and the country.

In view of this, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) has, over the years, stepped up its efforts in promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at various levels.

This, said UTAR president Prof Datuk Dr Ewe Hong Tat, is critical to ensure the manpower needs of the nation, especially in STEM-related areas, are met.

According to Prof Ewe, the varsity has produced a substantial number of graduates in the areas of engineering, science and technology since its inception in 2002.

“We learnt from industry that the demand for STEM graduates is very high, especially those related to the information and communications technology (ICT) area,” he told StarEdu.To prepare all its graduates for IR4.0, the varsity, he said, offers elective courses in computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, among others, to students in fields outside of engineering and technology-related programmes.

In addition, to cater to new needs, the varsity has introduced bachelor’s degree programmes such as in financial technology and digital economy technology.

He added that the setting up of the varsity’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in 2009 was part of its efforts to promote STEM education for nation-building.

Another “big investment” the varsity has made in recent years is building its teaching hospital, which cost RM330mil and will be fully operational by early next year.

“This is in line with our direction to provide affordable and quality medical services in our Kampar campus, as well as clinical training for our medical, traditional Chinese medicine and health sciences students,” he said in an interview to mark UTAR’s 20th anniversary, which fell on Aug 13.

“We also have 35 research centres all catering to the IR4.0 and AI era,” said Prof Ewe, citing the Centre for Internet of Things and Big Data, the Centre for AI and Computing Applications, the Centre for Cyber Security, the Centre for Sustainable Mobility Technologies, and the Centre for Immersive Technology & Creativity as examples.

Stressing that the building block of a country’s economy depends on strong fundamentals in technology and engineering, he pointed out that research-oriented projects and initiatives are required in Malaysia’s listed companies, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and small and medium industries (SMIs) to address challenges from other parts of the world.

Cognisant of this, the varsity has through the UTAR Research Fund allocated RM47mil to support 1,478 research projects.

It has also seen increasing research funding from external parties who have contributed more than RM71mil over the past 20 years.

“Our UTAR Undergraduate Research Scheme is also very popular. We allow students at the undergraduate level the opportunity to participate in industry research projects or become assistants to pick up research skills,” said Prof Ewe.

He added that the varsity offers 130 programmes, ranging from foundation and bachelor’s degree to master’s degree, PhD and even postdoctorate programmes.

“This means that PhD graduates can join our postdoctorate programmes so they can continue to strengthen their research skills,” he said.

To further increase the talent pool in STEM areas, the varsity has also sealed hundreds of collaboration opportunities with industry and partner universities from 30 economies, including locally.

“We believe that through our collaboration with industry, we will help to secure not only our students’ internship and industrial training, but also joint research, consultancy and others,” he said.

Another initiative the varsity has taken to prepare students for the future is equipping students with 10 soft skills, namely, communication and language skills; cognitive skills; complex problem-solving; critical thinking; emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence and teamwork; moral and professional ethics; leadership skills; lifelong learning and information management; entrepreneurship skills; and digital literacy.

“Students take courses and go for training to improve themselves in these 10 soft skills. There is a high percentage of students who take part in this.

“At their convocation, they receive an additional UTAR Soft Skills Development Certificate,” said Prof Ewe.

Besides making inroads at the tertiary level, the varsity has reached out to school students through numerous STEM events over the years – most notably the Kuala Lumpur Engineering Science Fair (KLESF), which it co-hosted with several partners.

“Last year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we hosted the KLESF online with over 70,000 participants, not just from Malaysia, but also other countries,” said Prof Ewe with pride.

He added that the pandemic was no deterrent for the varsity as it continued to conduct a number of STEM activities in schools.

“We coached the teachers on STEM education and organised various science camps, and science-related experiments and projects to give students hands-on experience and to encourage more students to study these STEM areas,” he said.

Promoting STEM education at various levels is critical to ensure the manpower needs of the nation are met.Prof EwePromoting STEM education at various levels is critical to ensure the manpower needs of the nation are met.Prof Ewe

Staying true to vision

As it looks ahead to a future driven by emerging technologies, the varsity is committed to strengthening its international collaboration and contributing back to society – in keeping with its vision to be a global university of educational excellence with transformative societal impact, said Prof Ewe.

Apart from having staff exchanges and joint programmes with universities in other parts of the world, the varsity encourages students to gain global exposure through its Explore the World Programme, where they get to engage in academic exchange, research attachment or overseas internship.

To date, over 20,000 local and international students have benefited from the inbound and outbound mobility programmes, some of which were conducted virtually during the pandemic.

“I can see that moving forward, this kind of exposure will be both physical and digital,” Prof Ewe asserted.

In giving back to society, he shared that for more than 10 years, the varsity has carried out community projects at villages.

“We have performed community service at more than 530 villages,” he said, adding that in early 2020, the varsity officially launched the UTAR Care Programme, which encourages more students to participate in voluntary service.

“If they had committed a number of hours of voluntary work, we give them a service transcript to indicate their involvement,” said Prof Ewe.

Future-ready talent: UTAR has produced a substantial number of graduates in the areas of engineering, science and technology since its inception in 2002. – FilepicFuture-ready talent: UTAR has produced a substantial number of graduates in the areas of engineering, science and technology since its inception in 2002. – Filepic

A university for the people

Having produced 77,000 graduates over the past two decades, the varsity with campuses in Kampar, Perak, and Sungai Long, Selangor, will continue to provide affordable quality education, said Prof Ewe.

“We have given away scholarships amounting close to RM170mil to 16,179 students with good academic performance, as well as those who are in need,” he shared.

Not just that, the varsity’s zero interest loan has benefited 1,597 recipients, while its financial aid during the pandemic enabled 205 students to address their immediate needs, he added.

“We are very thankful to the government, industry and society for their support throughout the years. The efforts of our staff, students and alumni have also enabled our success,” said Prof Ewe.

“We will continue to be a university by the people for the people, so that we can produce graduates with high employability. So far, 95% of our graduates secured employment within six months of graduation,” he added.

Living legacy

The high quality of its actuarial science course and the affordable tuition fees were the reasons why I chose to study at UTAR. My four years of study developed my sensitivity to data management, which has helped me to excel in financial management, allowing me to see the essence of financial problems and find effective solutions to grow my company as the chief financial officer. It also gave me a good start to my career as during my final semester, a Fortune 500 company came to UTAR for recruitment and I was selected to work for five years in the Middle East. I hope that UTAR will continue to uphold its vision to be a global university of educational excellence with transformative societal impact, and remain evergreen by empowering students through affordable quality education.-Chua Jia Rong, BSc (Hons) Actuarial Science, Class of 2016

The practical skills and knowledge I gained from UTAR have been helpful as I’m working as a field service engineer. Not just that, the soft skills and experience I gained through organising events and being involved in business projects helped prepare me for real-world communication with different parties. I hope in the years to come, more talents can be discovered at UTAR and that the institution will grow to become one of the top universities in Asia. -Sin Chia Ling, BEng (Hons) Biomedical Engineering, Class of 2021

My UTAR education laid the foundation for my accounting and finance career by providing me with sound knowledge base. I am fortunate to have been able to apply what I had learnt not only locally, but also abroad. In addition, my undergraduate studies empowered me to continue my postgraduate education, where I obtained the status of Fellow Certified Practising Accountant (FCPA) by CPA Australia, and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) professional qualifications. More importantly, my UTAR education instilled in me the values of humility, resilience and work ethic which I have leaned on in the corporate world, where I am now a chief financial officer. I hope the university will continue to build on its two decades of providing access to quality education to all and go on to expand its reach internationally. -Alvin Liew Voon Siong,

Bachelor of Commerce (Hons) Accounting, Class of 2006The public relations course was demanding in that we constantly had to manage tight deadlines and deal with complex projects. Nevertheless, it was good training for the real world. My four-year education at UTAR instilled a strong sense of professionalism in me, which gave me a great start to an interesting media and digital marketing career in Singapore. The campus was filled with people from all walks of life. It definitely expanded my world view. I would encourage current students to keep an open mind and engage with as many people as you can. You would be surprised with your discoveries. I have maintained strong friendships with my coursemates. I consider them to be my greatest blessings from my university days. Happy 20th anniversary, UTAR! -Ashleey Leong Pui Yean, Bachelor of Communication (Hons) Public Relations, Class of 2012

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