Text: “Interdisciplinary Research for the Education of the Next Generation” (Invited by Indonesian Ministry of Education & Culture)

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Interdisciplinary research for next-generation education

(Part of the manuscript of a book to commemorate the establishment of the “new industry-academia collaboration platform” issued by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Indonesia and the Bureau of Higher Education.

R & D of electronic materials is “fast”

I have studied particle technology since 25 years ago. From 1998 to 2006, I assisted a Japanese professor to manage a research group at Hiroshima University. During this period, I was given the opportunity to reopen the admissions pathway for doctoral students from Indonesia. 2001-2006, was the busiest period with the group of more than 40 people, including 15 staff from 10 companies involved in the Nanotechnology Particle Project. This national project funded by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) of Japan focuses on electronic materials (for LEDs, etc.).

We design a scholarship-system from industry so that doctoral students can carry out research in a focused manner. Many companies in Japan use a quarterly system so that the speed of work is relatively faster and (but) affects student learning styles. We often use a “micromanagement” system to keep up the schedule. The application of this system affects the learning styles of the students concerned and reduces their chances of learning from failure.

I often discuss with international students in our research group to “maintain” their motivation. Those who are not Japanese sometimes ask about technology ownership. Almost all research results from our group belong to the industry, including a technology which for 20 years has become a popular product on the market (electronic equipment).

Dilemma as a researcher

When visiting a mineral mine, I can see for myself the environmental “damage” caused by mining activities. A dilemma arose in me, who at that time acted as a “technology developer” who used the mining products to improve the performance of electronic devices. I feel that something will be missing in future generations when engineering-education is aimed at prioritizing the convenience of life and the creation of new competitions.

Developing countries are often only a market for products that are made possible by technological developments in developed countries. As an Indonesian, I have always had a desire to develop “appropriate” technology that will allow for cooperation between developed and developing countries. However, with a comfortable position as an academic staff (lecturer, researcher) associated with advanced industries, this wish is difficult to materialize.

“Slow” agricultural science

In 2006, I passed the selection for the first batch tenure-track program in Japan. The place I work now (TUAT) is one of 9 universities in Japan that have adopted this program. In this program, an associate professor can lead a research group without a full professor. This was a new thing at the time.

In early 2007, I moved to Tokyo and stopped at all projects with the electronics material industry. Together with several academic staffs (professors) from the faculty of agriculture, I participated in initiating the “Particulate & Plants” project (ASEPH, 2008-2013) which is a project of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). This project involved about 75 researchers with Ph.D. qualifications.

I had the most difficult task as an engineer, when it came to designing systems for exposing particulates (a model of air pollution) to plant leaves. The experiment was conducted over a period of 22 months. Plants grow from 10 cm to 200 cm. Heterogeneous leaves or leaf surfaces and circulating air from the air conditioner create turbulence which complicates mass transfer calculations.

During this project, comparative studies between existing plant-related data in Japan and data from Thailand or Indonesia were often carried out. This experience made me realize that engineering disciplines (particle technology or transport phenomena) can be an open and elegant medium in bridging technology players in Japan and developing countries.

In engineering disciplines, researchers act as the main player. They can design a reactor with laminar flow with a controlled temperature gradient to obtain a homogeneous product. However, after working with the faculty of agriculture, I realized that the main player in ASEPH project was the plant, not the researcher.

The ASEPH project teaches about risk management before designing and while experimenting. I have been able to get many engineering students to think about the importance of interdisciplinarity. Education with an interdisciplinary approach can dramatically increase the students’ motivation in problem solving. The collaborations resulted in many new engineering ideas and tips which later became the basis for my research group.

Vision

The world is currently facing the era of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). Social problems due to globalization, including technological innovation, are also a triggering factor for VUCA. Future generations will be in an increasingly difficult to predict ecosystem. The ability to make decisions and take action in complex situations will be needed. “When and where should education to prepare human resources (HR) be carried out?”. If it has been agreed that the final assignment (thesis, dissertation) in a higher education institution is the last medium for training human resources related to technology-based knowledge, the role of the supervisor in managing a research group and how the student processes are very important.

To develop human resources that are adaptive to VUCA, it is necessary to create an environment where individuals can experience failure and practice the learning process from failure. Unfortunately, in some countries, including Japan, quantitative evaluation is often given more importance. The mentor (head of the group) is often unable to follow the learning process from the failures of the students and in all likelihood, the mentor will lead the student to short-term success with micromanagement. Students tend to be afraid of failure and prefer to work (hard) according to the direction of the supervisor. Hard work is important, but if students are satisfied with short-term stability and peace of mind (comfort zone) as a reward for their efforts, there is a possibility that this stability orientation will reduce the sensitivity of the “sense of crisis” in the future. In addition, considering the long-term effects of VUCA, interdisciplinary research as well as “diversity” within organizations (such as research groups) is also important. One form of “diversity” can be achieved by including a certain percentage of foreign staff or international students.

Japan and Germany are good examples of business management methods classified as “Consensual + Hierarchy” (Mapping Leadership Cultures, Erin Meyer, 2017) with an “attitude to authority” axis (from Hierarchy to Egalitarian) and an “attitude to decision making” axis (from Top-down to Consensual). As another example, China and Indonesia are classified as “Top-down + Hierarchy”. The United States and United Kingdom are classified as “Top-Down + Egalitarian”. The Netherlands and Sweden are classified as “Consensual + Egalitarian”. The examples above show that there is a need for diversity as a way of thinking or cultural variables, especially in universities.

Global challenges are always complex, so placing an excessive value on a competition will lead the world in the wrong direction. For the long term good, the winner will be meaningless. Understanding and caring about each other’s history is the key to collaborating with other countries.

(Wuled Lenggoro, 30 Sept. 2020, Tokyo) 

** The author would like to thank Dr. Iqbal Djawad (Hasanuddin University) and Tiara Nur Pratiwi (Graduate student, Tokyo University of Agriculture & Technology) who provided (Indonesian language) editing assistance for the original article.

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