Understanding Nullspace better with Tech Director Mr Alan Yong

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 20 March 2014.)

Who says lessons can't be tremendously fun? Who says books and lecture notes are the only means through which knowledge can be effectively acquired? Nullspace, a sincerely made in Singapore brand, has for the past 6 years been working hard at breaking boring traditional stereotypes of academic learning with its wide range of robotics-based training courses for students of all ages. Not only does it strive to imbue within our youngsters various engineering, programming and problem solving skill-sets, it also seeks to nurture intrinsic values of peer cooperation such as sportsmanship and amicable teamwork. Having collaborated extensively with numerous mainstream MOE schools in addition to organizing the IDE Competition Series, Nullspace is certainly a rising star in our local education landscape which is experiencing significant paradigm shifts towards applications-based, creative learning. And we are most honoured to have its Tech Director Mr Alan Yong to join us in a sharing session today.

QN: Good day to you Alan, thank you for agreeing to speak with us. How about giving our readers a proper personal introduction about yourself and your team? Who does what exactly?

ANS: Hi, I'm Alan Yong, Tech Director of Nullspace. I specialise in exploring new robotics platforms and programming software for robotics competitions, and I oversee the annual Innovation, Design and Engineering (IDE) Competition Series. Soon Keong is our Curriculum Director and he develops training programs for schools. Jack Lee is our HR Director and is in charge of our training contracts with schools and manages our instructors deployment and training. Timothy Teo is our R&D Director and he focuses on electronics and programming courses. Lastly, we have Jasper Loong, our Founder and Managing Director.

Special Note: Nullspace comprises 3 separate but related businesses:

Nullspace - School robotics training

Nullspace Science- Science enrichment, DSA preparatory programs

Nullspace Centre for Robotics Learning (C4RL)- Private robotics training centre

QN: Under what circumstances was Nullspace initially being conceived? Were beginning intentions on the drawing board different from the eventual path taken?

ANS: Nullspace was started in 2008 when Jasper was studying in Nanyang Junior College. Most of us met through national robotics competition events and there was a meeting of minds and sufficient diversification of skill sets that the original founding team came together. We were all from different schools but the common theme is that we started young and each of us were at some point running this business concurrently with our studies. At present, half of our team are en-route to finishing our university. The beginning intention was to start this off as a side project to make some money training schools for robotics competitions. Our clientele increased over the years, and now we have 3 separate businesses and one enrichment centre.

QN: Is there any meaningful correlation between the learning of robotics and mainstream academic education? How does attending robotics training courses refine and shape problem solving perspectives?

ANS: At present mainstream education is still majorly lagging in terms of technological education. It's true that Singapore schools are one of the best equipped in IT and computer facilities. However that has not translated into mainstream classes for programming, computer aided design, and electronics. However we believe that MOE will be moving towards technology education in the near future.

Robotics is a combination of hardware (mechanical design), semi-hardware (electronics) and software (programming). Without going too much into technical details, imagine that we need to create a robot to climb a flight of stairs. This is not an arbitrary problem; the robot stair climbing problem has been tackled by many hobbyists, professionals and universities around the world. We will usually start from the hardware design: How do we get the robot from one step up to the next? How many motors do we need? How much power do we need? What sensors should we use to determine if the robot has reached the top? We will also have to consider the electronics and the software: What type of board and processors should we use? How many input and outputs ports do we need? Is my program robust enough to handle exception events (such as a stair step that is missing)?

Doing robotics does not mean that you will become an engineer, but doing robotics means that you ought to be a very good problem solver.

In my post titled "3 Reasons Why Children Should Do Robotics" , you will be able to read 2 more reasons beyond training problem solving skill sets.

QN:Was funding ever a problem? After all, setting up a robotics training facility like C4RL demands considerable capital outlay yes?

ANS: Yes the outlay is high in terms of rental. But having a training centre enables us to smooth our business cycle more effectively because schools do not have trainings during school holidays and examination periods, while private robotics enrichment classes picks up strongly during school holidays.

QN: Perhaps you would like to provide us with the main highlights of your most popular courses? Reasons as to why they are so widely received?

ANS:We have our in house LEGO Robotics Certificate Programme which consists of 6 levels. LEGO is a popular educational toy, and LEGO has done a great job in transforming that into an educational tool. The attractive part about this programme is that it is instantly appealing with kids (and adults) and reduces the barrier to learning from the outset. Kids can also learn simple programming concepts through the LEGO software (or languages like C or Python for advanced classes). There is a growing pool of educated parents who recognise the benefit of such programmes, and robotics is on its way to becoming an established enrichment class of its own, alongside piano, ballet, and abacus/mental arithmetic.

QN: A large proportion of students are still rather fixated on scoring good grades, something which is pretty much a consequence of traditional rote learning and somewhat encouraged by their parents who are quite possibly products of the old education order. Because good grades do eventually allow one to study at better universities, and snag better-paying jobs. There are therefore opinions going around that the situation is further exacerbated by many attending private tuition which do nothing more than provide targeted drill and memorize strategies. As they say: swallowing without chewing. Your take on this?

ANS: I personally feel very strongly against the tuition industry, or more specifically against how our education landscape has gone overboard in letting grades be the deciding factor in school admissions. Increasingly many top schools in Singapore are adopting the Integrated Programme, where students undergo a 6 years curriculum and by pass the O Levels entirely, to allow for more flexible and dynamic learning. It is a good initiative, but the unintended side effect is that the academic pressure to perform well has now shifted to primary school. It has become the case that PSLE is possibly the single greatest examination that a Singaporean student has to face, at a tender age of 12. If you do well, you are set for the next 6 years, and statistically speaking, a good chance to enter into a top university programme locally or overseas. If you do not do well, the next 6 years will be tough catch up. This is the reason why GEP preparatory programmes costs so much money, and parents are willing to pay for it. So now kids in Primary 3 have to face the pressure of getting into the GEP programme, in order to do well for PSLE, in order to get into get into a good secondary school, JC and university.

At Nullspace Science, we offer a new programme "CATALYST". Part of our goal is to help students get admitted to the school of their choice through the Direct School Admission Secondary (DSA-Sec) exercise. Students in this program will be personally mentored by our instructors to develop science projects of their choice, and to learn skills such as programming, 3D printing, and mechanical design. CATALYST sessions are a mixture of small group consultation, project fabrication, and idea presentations. Students will get to build their own personal portfolio website to showcase their projects. We cannot go against the flow of the education tide, but we hope to direct it to something more enriching for the next generation.

QN: Looking to the future, what's up on the cards for Nullspace? Any grand plans for global domination?

ANS:We can't provide too much details on our business strategy looking ahead, but we will be working with larger organisations to bring robotics to adults. One special project which I'm working on currently is a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) assignment to benefit children in need, sometime around the second half of 2014.

It's been lovely conversing with you; may I take this opportunity to wish you every success in the future projects you undertake at Nullspace, and that you continue to champion the cause of education enrichment for a long, long time to come. Remember, Singapore needs you. ;)