Through inspirational attention to “middle” students, alumnus and faculty member Prof Tim Woo is deepening affiliation to engineering
Family means a lot to alumnus Prof Tim Woo, and the School of Engineering is fortunate to have been adopted as such by the beloved award-winning educator since 1992.
The Electronic and Computer Engineering (ECE) faculty member and Founding Director of the Center for Global & Community Engagement began his 20-year plus relationship with the School as a member of the first cohort of students after HKUST was established in 1991. Joining in Year 2 after graduating from a sub-degree program, Hong Kong-born Prof Woo went on to take his bachelor, master’s and doctorate in ECE.
The sense of belonging at that time was intense, he recalled, as all at the University were new and students and teachers worked tremendously hard as a team to put the School and HKUST on the map, locally and internationally.
Since becoming a faculty member in 2005, Prof Woo himself has carved a special niche in future alumni’s hearts through his dedication and ability to reach out to the majority group of “middle” undergraduates, who are not planning to join academia or take up research as a career. He encourages such learners – “left to themselves in many education approaches while high-flyers and stragglers both receive special attention” – to participate in hands-on practical teamwork in coursework, and co-curricular activities offered through the Center, which was launched in 2011. As a result, they can gain confidence in their engineering skills and ability to contribute – all precursors for post-graduation career achievement – as well as build greater attachment to the School.
“These are the students who will most visibly represent HKUST culture in the workplace and we must take care of them,” said Prof Woo. “They won’t develop a sense of belonging after they graduate. It must be during their studies here.”
Under his direction, the Center helps engineering students apply their knowledge and learn about the world through participation in local and international contests and technology problem-solving community service. Creating a platform for student chapters of professional organizations, enabling undergraduates to establish early connections with the engineering fraternity, is another goal.
The sharing of challenges and a “can-do” spirit, learning new perspectives from working with others in different fields, building friendships, and the joy of finding solutions that can make a difference to people’s lives are key lessons he seeks to impart rather than focusing solely on success. When he came on board as supervisor of the HKUST Robotics Team in 2010, he told students that his aim was not primarily to go for championships. “I was looking to establish a family, where people felt happy to work together. At the time, only a few agreed with me.”
Once such commitment is shown, though, visible results are never far behind, be it winning competitions, embedding cognitive therapy for the elderly in a digital photo frame or holding robot-building workshops for the visually impaired. In total, students have gained more than 130 awards since 2007 under his supervision, with over 70 won by the Robotics Team in the past five years. Furthermore, if students realize that the School cares about them, they will return this care as alumni by coming back to help others, Prof Woo noted.
Prof Woo’s work has recently brought him the prestigious and highly competitive University Grants Committee Teaching Award 2015, encompassing all Hong Kong’s UGC-funded institutions, and the Michael G Gale Medal for Distinguished Teaching, a HKUST-wide award that celebrates one outstanding educator annually. He sees such recognition as a useful way to create interest among other faculty and the wider teaching community and to share his approach to engineering education.
His wish to help others was initially shaped by his parents, who were not materially well off yet always willing to lend a hand to assist their many relatives and friends, and later as a high school community service volunteer. Now he too is a father, he wants to serve as a role model to his own family. “When my son heard about my awards, he only asked one question: ‘You won’t stop teaching those who cannot see to build robots, will you?” Prof Woo assured him he would not.