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A True Educator

Prof. Philip MOK’s Words of Wisdom for Engineering Students – “Be Curious, Confident and Learn New Know-How”

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Prof. Philip K. T. Mok believes that a good education is about motivation.
Prof. Philip K. T. Mok believes that a good education is about motivation. [Download Photo]

Prof. Philip K. T. MOK, the newly-inaugurated Associate Dean of Engineering (Undergraduate Studies), is a student-centered educator who likens teaching to raising children. Having been awarded the Teaching Excellence Appreciation Award three times by the School of Engineering during his 23-year career as a professor of Electronic and Computer Engineering, and a recipient of the Teaching Assistant Award from his alma mater the University of Toronto (U of T), Prof. Mok has good stories to tell about his passion in education.

“As a child, I had always been curious about how electricity and electronics work: I disassembled and re-assembled fans and other appliances, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. To this day, I am still intrigued by the unique nature of electricity, as it does what human beings cannot do. Moreover, it is a fast-changing field with discoveries that can hardly be imagined just a decade ago,” noted Prof. Mok with enthusiasm.

Specializing in computer hardware, device technology and ultimately circuit design during his undergraduate, master’s and PhD studies at the U of T, he decided to return to Hong Kong and join the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in 1995 upon graduation. He said, “Always hoping to contribute and give back to Hong Kong, I was excited to learn from recruitment materials and U of T colleagues that HKUST was a new university with a research focus, an innovative culture as well as a young and energetic faculty. Joining HKUST meant that I could focus on both teaching and research at the same time.”

After more than two decades of hard work, Prof. Mok is now an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Fellow and has served as an associate editor for three IEEE journals at different periods over the past 13 years. He is also the Director of HKUST’s newly launched Integrated Circuits Design Center. His research encompasses integrated circuit (IC) design and power management, as he uses IC chips to manage distribution and usage of power.

Education means motivating students

Prof. Mok believes that a good education is about motivation. His education philosophy can be summed up as an embodiment of parental care and patience. “Teaching students is just like raising children: you won’t give up on your kids. Similarly, do not give up on your students even if they have differential abilities in different areas. The key to education is to motivate students to learn.”

He acknowledges that even among engineering students, there are some who are good at oral presentation and others who excel in writing papers, building models and prototypes, or doing analyses.

Students also have varying aspirations. “Not all students are naturally interested in the particular specialization I teach in a specific course. What I can do, however, is to help all students acquire a certain level of understanding. Those with the highest level of interest may go for further pursuit.”

Every student should have takeaways

Prof. Mok comments that in Hong Kong, especially when the education system was more elitist than it is now, students are often tested on “what they do not know”, rather than “what they do know”. There may be five questions in a test, and all of them are extremely difficult. Whereas smart students crack them with flying colors, others find it most demotivating as they may not be able to tackle even one question.

“Alternatively, as educators can we set those five questions with varying levels of difficulty, so that every student has something to take away and is then motivated to develop his or her potentials according to one’s ability? It is only when students have the chance to get a taste of encouraging results that they will be motivated to do better.”

To this end, Prof. Mok always maintains good eye contact with students in class just in case they look doubtful or are in need of more explanations from him. When asked about his clue to teaching excellence, he humbly said, “I do not teach elite students only; I try to be student-oriented, pay attention to students’ differential abilities and fine-tune my teaching approach accordingly.”

Since the passion in science and engineering is often instilled early in life, Prof. Mok is happy to see that Hong Kong is now developing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in primary and secondary schools. He considers this a good beginning, though there is room for improvement. Rather than operating as extra-curricular modules such as interschool competitions, it would be better if STEM can be integrated into most schools as a part of the required curriculum, so that all pupils and students will be involved.

SENG meeting challenges with confidence

As to challenges facing HKUST School of Engineering, as well as education in Hong Kong in general, the seasoned educator said, “It has been a common phenomenon that local students’ preferences regarding academic disciplines are lopsided towards a few ‘hot’ areas of the time. Instead, they should follow their own interests and strengths. Since HKUST introduced school-based admission in 2012 in view of the 3-3-4 scheme, freshmen may now take a number of engineering courses during their first year of study to explore their genuine interest, before the declaration of their majors at the end of the first year.”

The 3-3-4 scheme, which has resulted in Hong Kong’s move from four to three years of senior high, also means that there is now greater variation among engineering freshmen in terms of foundations in various subjects. The School of Engineering meets the challenge by introducing honors’ class and streaming.

“More importantly, we offer a variety of learning experiences with greater flexibility, ranging from flipped classroom and other modes of blended learning to experiential learning such as cornerstone design courses, competitions and so on,” Prof. Mok continued.

Among the experiential learning initiatives is the setting up of Undergraduate Student-initiated Experiential Learning (USEL) Lab, a 24/7 student-managed and student-operated MakerSpace that offers a reconfigurable learning environment with top-notch equipment to encourage students to develop prototypes according to their interests.

Prof. Mok also believes that research programs are important for giving undergraduate students an early exposure to learn about the research process: how to solve problems, integrate theory and practicum, develop research skills and interpret results etc. With HKUST’s signature Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), those who want to focus on research later in life may prepare themselves early. For others, the experience is beneficial in itself as it embraces both self-learning and independent thinking.

Future aspirations

Having contributed to HKUST for over two decades, Prof. Mok compliments today’s students for being more proactive and dynamic, actively engaging in a variety of activities ranging from intervarsity competitions to student-initiated projects. He said, “These are essential to enhance their learning experience. Group projects, for example, involve leadership, task allocation, communications and other lifelong learning skills.”

With HKUST’s academic standards, international faculty and strong connections in China and overseas, he is confident that the School will continue to celebrate milestone achievements.

Looking towards the future, the Associate Dean aspires to train up engineers to contribute to society. “Engineering is essentially an applied science to benefit mankind. My specialization in power management, for instance, involves green electronics to use power efficiently, minimize wastage and conserve the environment.”

He has sound advice to engineering students and young engineers, “Be curious, confident, and learn new know-how. Do not take things for granted but try to understand and verify the knowledge you have acquired. Do not chase after ‘hot’ areas; it is only if you find and follow your passion that you will excel.”

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