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Cultivating a growth mindset

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Mr Teo Shin Jen believes that learning is a lifelong process that allows dreams to become reality

Singapore Polytechnic lecturer Mr Teo Shin Jen is a TCM practitioner. 

But TCM in this case does not mean traditional Chinese medicine. Instead, the 35-year-old's TCM stands for Teach, Coach and Mentor. 

TCM is a three-step instructional framework that he came up with and implemented at the faculty:

Teach — students the fundamentals and instill in them the basic building blocks of computing;
Coach — them on applying the said fundamentals to solve problems, both according to standard operating procedures, as well as by thinking outside the box; 
Mentor — the students as they journey on to become qualified engineers. 

Much like its medicinal namesake, Mr Teo’s TCM framework has been tried and tested over many years; a testament to his commitment to lifelong learning.

While he may be into his 11th year as a lecturer in Singapore Polytechnic, his teaching journey actually started long before that — when he was himself a student enrolled in the very school he teaches in today. 

During his time as a student, he taught a variety of computing-related engineering modules as part of his co-curricular activities. 

These ranged from programming, security, digital fabrications, microcontrollers, and even cloud computing — a concept that was foreign to many people at the time. He even trained fellow students for competitions and hackathons.

“I had a knack for it,” he says. “I just like to share know-how and methodologies.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that he found his way back to teaching after graduation. After a stint working as a consultant with a major consulting firm, Mr Teo decided to return to his alma mater to his first love — teaching.

Lifelong learning, he stresses, is of the utmost importance in the computing industry, perhaps above all other industries.

“The computing industry changes very fast,” he says. “If you observe the news closely, you’ll find a shift in focus from the Internet of Things, to blockchain, to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, all within the last five years.”

In spite of the mercurial nature of the tech industry, Mr Teo keeps himself abreast with advancements in the sector by attending conferences both online and in person. He also participates in hackathons and constantly experiments with new technologies with his students.

Aside from involving his students in all of the above projects, he also strongly encourages them to make tangible commitments, such as undertaking relevant industry certifications on specific technologies. 

Doing so, he explains, helps them stay passionately curious about all things computing and fuels their desire to understand what is “under the hood”.

He warns that without a philosophy of lifelong learning, it is all too easy to be rendered obsolete — just like the technology he works with. 

“Staff have to keep up to date with the latest tech and developments to stay ahead,” he says. 

This is not just for their own benefit, but staying relevant also aids them in producing SP students who are capable and competent — capable of contending with, in Mr Teo’s own words, the “big boys from the universities”.

And perhaps no other student of Mr Teo’s exemplifies capability and confidence quite as well as Mr Nikhil Raghavendra, 20. 

Then in his first year at SP, Mr Raghavendra had never met Mr Teo. But the lecturer’s reputation preceded him: the aspiring engineer was inspired by tales of Mr Teo’s mentorship, and how he had guided many students in the preceding classes to victory in various competitions and hackathons. 

In particular, Mr Raghavendra’s interest was piqued by Mr Teo’s “maker attitude”: a constant drive to create useful things by splicing commonly-found components and consumables together. 

After contacting Mr Teo through Facebook Messenger, Mr Raghavendra eventually linked up with the man who would become his mentor face to face, and, at his urging, borrowed some of his electrical equipment to tinker with. 

That, Mr Raghavendra says, was the catalyst that started him on his journey as a maker. 

And what a journey it has been. Among the numerous projects that Mr Raghavendra has completed under Mr Teo’s tutorage, are the design of an AI agent using a machine learning model; and the development of Parsley, a machine learning-based recipe dispenser that offers recommendations to the user based on ingredients available to them. 

Mr Raghavendra’s feats have caused developers all over the world to sit up and take notice. His AI agent was featured on artificial intelligence company OpenAI’s website, putting him at the top of the global leaderboard for two days. 

But arguably, his greatest success to date has been to be part of the group from SP that beat 16 other Singaporean teams to clinch the top spot in the Bosch Ville Hackathon 2018.

Team Sudo Coders, as they were called, conceptualised and built an urban agricultural toolkit that included sensors, machine learning and cloud computing to help farmers grow their crops more productively. 

Their secret? Documentation. 

Like every project he had done before, Mr Raghavendra and his team were painstaking in their documentation of the whole process. 

“While documentation can be a painful task, it acts as a guide for us and others when we want to make something similar in future,” he explains. 

This, he continues, was an invaluable habit he picked up from his mentor. Rigor in documentation not only helps clarify one’s own process, but also provides a means to support others’ interest in lifelong learning. 

“I’m just setting an example for my students,” says Mr Teo, when questioned about his fixation on documentation. “By doing so, and walking the talk, I hope my students understand the need to continuously improve themselves.

“You can give them as much TCM as you can, but ultimately, it’s their own growth mindset and entrepreneurial spirit that will really make their dreams into a reality.”

Singapore Polytechnic