School Introduction

Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 26th Installment“Through PBL—The Mutterings of an Assistant Professor”

by Toshiyuki Murao,
Assistant Professor, Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering

It is my pleasure to contribute this column.

The faculty of the Master’s Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering has five assistant professors, including myself. The other four have considerable experience in their respective fields. In contrast, I was lucky enough to land a teaching job at this Institute straight after graduating from university, which meant that I did not go out into the world. On top of that, I am the youngest of the five assistant professors, and I compare poorly with the others in terms of the amount of professional experience I have had. They teach me many things every day. Nonetheless, I believe that I am the person to whom the students, particularly the new graduates who have enrolled in this program immediately after graduation, feel the closest. In this column, I would like to address my students as their senior, rather than as their teacher.

A meeting was held the other day at the Tokyo International Forum to present the Project-Based Learning (PBL) project results. It was equivalent to the thesis presentation meetings held at many other graduate schools. It was the first of its kind for our program, and there was no precedent for it. I know that my students had to work very hard, and you all did a very good job.

It is difficult to do anything for the first time. However, doing something for the first time can improve your abilities rapidly because you have the freedom to think for yourself without being bound by precedents. In addition, it is fun and you experience a sense of achievement.

I presume that you are all aware that you have improved your abilities and acquired many skills during the past year through everyday activities, including the PBL presentation meeting. The chief differences between our Institute’s PBL and other universities’ master’s programs are the fact that research is not conducted by individuals, but by project groups; and the fact that each project group is made up of a combination of new graduates and adults with diverse backgrounds who have worked for corporations and organizations since graduation.

With these differences in mind, I am going to discuss the experiences and abilities I expect you to acquire.

First of all, I’d like new graduates to have the experience of being cornered, both mentally and physically. In this sense, adult students who work full time during the day will have gone through a lot during the last two years because they come to the Institute to study after finishing a day’s work, despite being tired.

If you, the new graduates, only work on your PBL activities at night at the same pace as the adult students just because you are on the same PBL program, it will definitely not be enough. You will have to compete against students who have spent all day studying, while you were only studying at night. They will be your contemporaries and rivals in the real world.

Once a person has experienced something, he is more likely to be calm and composed when doing the same thing the next time. This also holds true of being cornered. A person can endure a challenge because of his/her experience of having faced challenges of the same magnitude. By the same token, students from other universities, who place themselves under pressure to produce better results by working on their research all day long, will know how to create the same sort of environment in the companies they work for, and how to survive it.

This is why I hope that new graduates will be firmly resolved to spend time working seriously on PBL and that they will be willing to corner themselves, rather than pacing themselves against their adult teammates or other PBL teams based on their progress.

With regard to the abilities I expect you to acquire, I’d like to begin my list with the ability to think things through deeply and logically, and the ability to look at things from a comprehensive point of view.

I believe that it is much more difficult to spend a lot of time doing something that requires sophisticated skills than it is to do many simple things quickly. I understand that each student is useful in their own way, and that you have your own ideas about which skills you want to learn. However, I strongly hope that you will push yourselves to accomplish difficult tasks that demand advanced skills, because you are here to learn. It is essential to think deeply and logically to do something at a sophisticated level. I hope that you will continue to ask yourselves questions while working on your tasks, such as the meaning of what you are currently doing in relation to the entire process, the degree of difficulty of each part of the process and the nature of that difficulty, and the necessary steps to take in solving the problem that is central to the difficulty.

Having said that, you should not simply spend time forging ahead with your project because of the one-year time limit within which you are required to make it a success. It is important to proceed while considering the order or priority within the big picture based on the remaining time until the deadline, and the position in which you stand within the overall project. It must be pointed out that people, when faced with difficult issues, tend to fail to see things from a comprehensive point of view. As a result, in many cases, they end up spending a lot of time trying to find the best but limited solution. By taking a step back, however, one may be able to find a more simple method or solution that employs a fundamentally different approach. I strongly hope that you will experience this process through PBL and acquire the necessary skills.

There are certainly many abilities that can be improved because of the unique features of this Institute that I mentioned earlier. One of these is the fact that students have the opportunity to play a variety of roles in the long-term project activities that they implement as a group. A group leader is expected to acquire the leadership skills to motivate team members and drive them forward, rather than simply being coercive. A project manager is expected to acquire management skills through real activities, in which phenomena occur beyond theories and hypotheses. It is also important to be able to assign tasks based on the capabilities of team members with different backgrounds. Of course, the team members who are assigned the tasks must also act responsibly. If a team member has more work than he/she can handle, he/she will not, in the end, be able to meet the deadline. He/she may be happy to accept an excessive workload, but this will only achieve a negative result for the team. Each team member should be able to correctly assess his/her limitations, and at the same time, everyone should work with a sense of teamwork so that any team member who finds himself/herself stuck can be helped through the team’s efforts.

The PBL presentation meetings are the perfect opportunity for learning all these skills. The number of times they are held has been increased intentionally. What point am I trying to make? Why do I need to make it at this time? The meetings provide a golden opportunity for students to think through the logical construction of their arguments from a comprehensive point of view. This thought process takes place not only when making a presentation, but also for self-evaluation throughout the project as a whole. For an opportunity like this, where you present your project before an audience, you must create a timeline that allows more than enough practice.

My teachers taught me a lesson: “Preparation, preparation, preparation,” which meant that you could never be too prepared. From them, I learned the importance of preparation. Of course, you do not necessarily succeed because you have done a perfect job of preparing yourself. However, it is far more difficult to improvise a response to a situation for which you are totally unprepared than it is to do something you are prepared for. A project manager should therefore create a timeline in accordance with which the team members can not only practice presentation, but also simulate Q&A sessions. Investing sufficient time in undertaking thorough preparation will naturally improve your presentation skills.

There will be many students who have acquired the aforementioned skills and experience this year. It will have been an extremely valuable experience for them to have had the opportunity to make presentations at a large venue like the Tokyo International Forum with many people from outside the Institute in the audience. Again, I commend you all on the great job you’ve done this year.

In April, those of you who will be enrolled in the next school year will start new projects. I strongly hope that you will work toward a greater goal than you did this year. I expect that those enrolled for the following year will progress to attain an even greater goal.

Before I finish, I’d like to point out that this column is about the level of meta-competency at this Institute, and that I certainly hope that our students also acquire core competency. Many of you may be thinking, “Don’t tell us these things as if they were something new,” and that’s OK. But because these things are often taken for granted, I’d like this year’s students to take another look at the year that has just ended and consider what I’ve just written. I also hope that the students who are enrolled in our program from the next year onward will work on PBL in a way that ensures improvement.

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  • The 28th Installment

    “Recent Thoughts”

    by Hideki Murakoshi,
    Professor, Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering
  • The 26th Installment

    “Through PBL—The Mutterings of an Assistant Professor”

    by Toshiyuki Murao,
    Assistant Professor, Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering
  • The 25th Installment

    “Invisibility and Architecture”

    by Yukio Namba,
    Professor, Masters Program of Information Systems Architecture