Programmed for Success

25 January 2017

Recent graduate Tuan Nguyen is using his enthusiasm for engineering to ignite a new passion for learning in high school students through a unique mentoring program.

Tuan Nguyen Like many children, Tuan Nguyen (Bachelor of Engineering, 2015) showed early signs that he’d become an engineer when, at the age of six, he pulled apart his parents’ radio.

“I just liked pulling things apart and seeing what’s inside,” he laughs. “I think I managed to put it back together, but I did a very dodgy job of it.”

But it wasn’t always obvious he’d become an engineer. A year before dismantling the radio, his family moved from Vietnam to Sydney’s outer western suburbs. He spoke not a word of English, and his mother worked long hours to put him through school. He didn’t even know what engineering was until late in high school.

“I was always creative and inquisitive, but I assumed engineering was about science,” Tuan explains. “When I realised engineering also has the creative elements of industrial design, I made the decision that it is what I want to do.”

Now an engineer with WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, Tuan volunteers his time to UTS’s Faculty of Engineering and IT to mentor students as part of the university’s U@Uni Summer School Program. Having only graduated from UTS two years earlier with a degree in mechanical engineering, he shows high school students what engineering is all about with real-world skills and applications. In fact, he took the time to give this interview between sessions of teaching the basics of programming to high school-aged students.

"We use a lot of analogies to help them understand that programming isn’t about difficult numbers. It's more like writing an essay."

“We use a lot of analogies to help them understand that programming isn’t about difficult numbers. It’s more like writing an essay,” Tuan explains.

Tuan had been involved with such programs for more than two and a half years while studying at UTS.

“I actually lived where some of these kids live. I know the type of people they’re around and the disadvantages they’re facing… I didn’t get these kinds of opportunities,” he says. “For them, this might be the only chance they get in which someone tells them how great engineering can be, and what opportunities they could have when they leave school.”

It wasn’t hard to convince his employers at WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which participates in similar programs in South Australia and Queensland, to get involved. When he asked if he could take time off to continue participating in UTS’s Mentor Support Programs, his line manager was enthusiastic about it, as was his team executive. Further conversations with the company’s diversity council led to a dialogue with UTS’s Equity and Diversity Unit to introduce an industry-related program for high school students.

“The best part is when the kids email you back six months later,” says Tuan with some satisfaction. “They’ll say things like ‘I’m still doing some of the projects we did in Summer school. Could you help me out with this program?’

“They don’t have any of this in their schools, and they’re doing it in their own time because they were inspired after coming to the Summer school. And a lot of them say ‘I want to do engineering now’.”

Not surprisingly, the managers at WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff have joked that Tuan is trying to recruit new talent for the company – but the intentions are ultimately earnest: “I think they are supportive that I’m out there supporting the community, rather than just taking leave and going on holidays.”

If he does actually go on holidays, however, he’ll likely go fishing – his other great love besides engineering. He frequents the Balmain area, near the Gladesville Bridge.

“I like the technology that goes into fishing rods,” he enthuses. “We’ve come so far from using a wooden stick and a piece of string to lightweight, composite materials. I think it’s…”

He stops midway through the sentence, realising he still sounds like an engineer.

Naturally.

Story and photography by Kevin Cheung

Interested in learning more about the U@Uni Summer School?

Now in its ninth year, the dynamic U@Uni Summer School outreach program provides students with a real campus experience and aims to demystify university and build confidence for tertiary study. The program includes low socio-economic status (SES) students entering year 11 from UTS partner schools in South West Sydney. Many come from a refugee background, while nearly half of all students come from a non-English speaking background.

The program is centred on a two-week experience in January each year in which students are mentored by UTS academics, students and industry professionals in strands including Business, Science Investigation, Media and Communication, Design, Engineering and Information Technology, and Health. Designing floating houses for an earthquake-resistant city in civil engineering and creating a current affairs news piece with the neighbouring ABC were new additions to the 2017 program.

This year’s curriculum also tapped into more transdisciplinary learning approaches. Teachers and researchers from multiple disciplines were actively involved with the students in a shared process of defining and resolving a complex problem in society. For further information about the program or to offer your support, contact Lisa Aitken.