Introductory Course for Global Scientists and Engineers 2019

In the fourth quarter of 2019, I was a TA for the course Introductory Course for Global Scientists and Engineers (or GSEC). This is a project-based learning course offered to undergraduates at the Tokyo Institute of Technology as a Liberal Arts / Basic Science / Breadth course. The goal of the course is mainly to develop global awareness and teamwork among its students. For teaching assistants, this course is an excellent opportunity to work in a different instruction method, where the teacher is expected to take the facilitator role as opposed to a lecturer. Such teaching style will require the teacher to build closer relationships with the students, thus moving the focus from imparting knowledge to helping the students create learning opportunities.
The GSEC is offered to first-year undergraduate students to provide them research experience on global issues. It is an opportunity for them to practice their English communication skills, learn how to gather useful information, be exposed to other cultures, and for a lot of the students, to experience working in a group. The class will be composed of eight weeks, where the TA will have direct and significant involvement on Weeks 2, 3, 4, and 5.

The TA's primary goal is to introduce their home country to a small group of students, who will later on work on a group project that the TA will facilitate. The country introduction would include basic information (e.g., geography, demographics, political system, etc.), its similarities and differences with Japan, and selected recent prevalent issues. The students will then choose from the issues presented a topic they would tackle for their group project. In my case, I presented the Philippines' problems related to education, transportation, and disaster management. Below is the slide deck I used for my presentation. Unfortunately, I deliberately chose to limit the content of these slides to have more time for discussion.

After the TA presentation, the TA will facilitate the group activity, which spans several weeks. This includes creating a research and work proposal (the how and why, current policies, useful technologies, other existing efforts, etc.), analyzing the proposal (feasibility, acceptability, sustainability, novelty), and conducting the proposed work (tools creation, investigation, data collection, evaluation, reporting). I was a TA for two different sections of the class. In one class, the students chose to tackle the education problem. In the other class, they chose the transportation problem.

For this post, I will be elaborating a little bit more about the group that decided to tackle the Philippines' traffic problem. Most other teams that similarly covered traffic problems from other countries tried to solve vehicle congestion; interestingly, my students decided to tackle the accidents arising from traffic. From the videos I shared with them, they noticed that not all roads in the Philippines have guard rails. Also, most people disregard rules and general decency just to get to the place they have to go to (e.g., people not lining up to ride a bus, a bus running while people are still alighting, etc.). They came up with two straightforward solutions: to install guard rails and have posters similar to the signs here in Japan reminding passengers of proper train etiquette. They then tried to see how the guard rails can fit into the current Philippine policy on infrastructure development. They also wanted to look for evidence of the effectiveness of the posters, but they were not able to find enough literature on it. Instead, they proposed a way on how the Philippine government can measure the effectiveness of the posters.

A slide from the students' report

The students were motivated, so it was not hard to push them to work. However, they felt intimidated about having to communicate in English, let alone having to read academic papers in English. They also had initial hurdles where they were getting blogs as their information source, which in the context of Philippine media can be prone to fake news. Near the end, they were disheartened when they cannot find a reference for proving that their suggestion is good (effectiveness of posters). Fortunately, they were able to overcome all these challenges through frequent consultations and brainstorming.

As previously mentioned, I was actually requested to TA for two classes of the same course; in both classes, my groups are assigned to sit at the front. The professor mentioned that she observed excellent group work from the groups assigned to me, and she thinks the students learned a lot about how to communicate, proper information collection, and about my country as well. It was hard to see that things go well while I was in the situation, but looking back, I think I agree that everyone got something out of the class.