Q & A with Prof Dieter Trau, Dean, School of Engineering and Technology, and Director, AIT Entrepreneurship Center
It has been five months since you left the National University of Singapore (NUS) and joined AIT as the Dean of the School of Engineering and Technology (SET). How has the AIT experience been so far?
Yes, that’s correct. I was at NUS for 15 years as faculty in the Biomedical Engineering Department, and I gave up my position there to come to AIT. My AIT experience for the past five months has been a great learning exercise about what AIT does and how it ticks. As a postgraduate-only school with about 1,600 students and three Schools (Engineering, Environmental Resources, and Management), AIT is obviously very different in its organization from NUS. It’s nice to see many people from different countries coming and working together in one holistic environment. With reference to AIT’s new slogan “Transforming AIT,” I made it a point to meet with a majority – if not all – of SET faculty and invited students to "Tea with the Dean" to elicit feedback and recommendations on changes they would like to see at AIT. AIT is a quite special institution in Thailand and the world, and I am still in the learning phase. I need more time to work out the best way forward for SET and to set new goals with my faculty and define our action plan. That’s all going on as a speak.
How do you see your role as Dean and the responsibility your role has towards the school and the students?
As Dean, I feel it's important to react to the changing world of education and research to keep the School competitive and lead it towards a sustainable future. To do that, I need to keep an eye out for new and exciting opportunities as well as listen to what the SET faculty and students have to say. As I mentioned previously, I made it a point to meet with a majority of SET Faculty to elicit their feedback and learn about changes they'd like to see. I've been at AIT now for exactly one semester, and I introduced the semester-start and semester-end "Tea with the Dean and Faculty” for our students to learn more about their studies and living experience on the AIT campus.
What is your vision for SET?
One of the main visions for the School of Engineering is contribution to society through high quality human resources, research and education. In short, to attract the best faculty and therefore students – and vice versa – to SET! I also wish to engage our alumni more and entice them to come back to the campus. With the best people, the job is already half-done because it’s all about people. In terms of research, I want to extend SET’s existing research in the health & wellness area. Health & wellness is an important area for the region, and it has great potential for social impact. Strategically, Thailand has a huge health & wellness industry where we can apply our research and where our students can get good jobs. Moreover, in less than 5 years, several countries including Thailand will become aging societies where health and wellness are one of the most crucial demands. My long-term vision is that AIT or SET should have a unit fully dedicated to health & wellness, which could be a Department or a School or a Research Center. I'm confident SET can make a strong contribution to the development of engineering solutions to pressing health & wellness problems within the region and even globally and impact the lives of many people for the better.
How would you describe an ideal SET student?
There is no one "ideal student.” Students can be all ideal in their specific way, using their specific talents and social interactions. SET wants to attract motivated and creative students, out-of-the-box thinkers but with a sense of what the future world and in particular the needs of the engineering profession will be like. AIT is probably the most international university in Thailand and top in the region. We want it to stay that way and to welcome students from all over the globe to join in and add to our multinational and multicultural environment. The school’s vision is to help students achieve their full potential and to be successful in their studies at AIT and in their future careers and lives.
How do you plan to make SET more attractive globally to young engineers?
First of all, SET must have attractive and "cool" offerings in terms of research and educational programs. SET’s work on drones, artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart cities is already pretty "cool." However, that’s not enough; we must also communicate this development through all types of media. I want SET to be visible in all media platforms for us to build our brand and identity and make it known to the world. By reaching students in all social platforms, SET aims to establish and maintain a personal connection with them. Consequently, when people hear about AIT’s School of Engineering and Technology, they'll know right away who we are. Word of mouth is also a very powerful tool. People these days really listen to and value the recommendations of others, especially those close to them in terms of age. Ideally, every SET student and graduate becomes our Global Ambassador. We will also offer a "Minor in Entrepreneurship" from August 2020 onwards.
How important is it for students to be encouraged? How would you encourage SET students?
It's very important for students to not only be encouraged but also feel encouraged. It's difficult enough for students, especially our international students, who make up about 70% of the total, to be living in a new place all alone. That's why I think students need to be and feel encouraged. AIT does have its Career Center, but I believe students should also be getting encouragement from their respective faculty, and especially myself, the Dean.
There are several ways in which SET students can be encouraged. One of them is to talk to them and to get to know them. That's what we do in the newly-introduced “Tea with the Dean and Faculty” sessions by believing in students' ability to carry out great research projects, motivating them throughout, and finally rewarding them for their achievements. We also introduce new and highly attractive opportunities for students, such as internships and exchange scholarships, founding a startup via our Entrepreneurship Center, joining student exchange programs with well-known universities worldwide, participating internships with local and overseas enterprises, and volunteering in service learning programs with social responsibility organizations in Thailand.
The AIT campus offers very beautiful, green surroundings. But having this alone does not make a good campus; there must be several other factors. What do you think makes a good campus?
What makes an educational campus good is to allow everyone in it – students, staff, and faculty – to be united and to feel that everyone can work well together. This can be achieved if everyone contributes to nurturing the atmosphere we have on campus by focusing on communicating effectively with others, being adaptable to a rapidly-changing society and world, and uniting and connecting students with each other and with others around them, including faculty and staff. After all, we are all one big AIT Family.
The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) are becoming a focus in many universities for their research. Is your school also active in this area?
AIT has long been known for its excellent research, including areas related to the Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, AIT was already working on sustainable development goals even before they were defined by the United Nations. Historically, AIT has been very strong in water, environmental, energy, and safe and affordable housing. AIT was founded for capacity development in those areas, which were as important at AITs foundation 60 years ago as they are today. Here are a few examples of recent research contributing to SDG 3 – Ensuring Healthy Lives and Promoting Well-being for All at All Ages:
Dr. Attaphongse Taparugssanagorn’s research on Medical, Health Care, and Sport Information and Communication Technologies, which aims to prevent serious injuries in sports and to increase individual independence, mobility, safety, and social contact through better communication, inclusion, and participation using available technologies.
Prof. Manukid Parnichkun’s research projects aim to help the mobility of disabled and elderly people. These include the Development of a Leg-Exoskeleton Robot for a Walking Rehabilitation Project and the Development of an Autonomous Mobile Robotic Chair with Ability for Staircase Climbing for Disabled and Elderly People.
Prof. Matthew Dailey and Dr. Mongkol Ekpanyapong’s Smart Campus project contributes to SDG 11 – Making Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient, and Sustainable. The Smart Campus project prototypes the city-scale, AI-based tracking of vehicles to facilitate various applications such as locating someone in case of an emergency, logistics, location-based services, traffic analysis, and more. The project is now at the testing stage.
Those are just some examples on how my School contributes to the SDGs. Together with our colleagues from the other Schools, we at AIT also contribute to SDGs related to food sustainability, climate change, and poverty reduction. AIT's slogan is “Social Impact with Innovation.” For me, this is a short form for contributing to the 17 sustainable development goals by achieving Social Impact, and that’s what SET and AIT do.
You are the founding director of the new AIT Entrepreneurship Center. How do you visualize the role of entrepreneurship within the AIT ecosystem?
As you know, AIT celebrated its 60th Anniversary just two months ago, and our 60th Anniversary motto is "Transforming AIT." Part of this transformation consists of injecting greater innovation and entrepreneurship into AIT. This is precisely what the new AIT Entrepreneurship Center does. It will be a cornerstone for our students and faculty as they seek to translate their ideas and projects into tangible outcomes such as prototypes, business plans, and startups. My vision for the AIT Entrepreneurship Center is to create social impact with innovation, just as in our slogan. The Entrepreneurship Center has only been in existence for about two months, so perhaps I should report on its activities and impact sometime in the future after its activities have been ramped up.