When Nhut Ho, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at California State University, Northridge, traveled to Vietnam in the spring of 2008 as a Fulbright Scholar, he thought he would be spending the semester helping determine ways to increase the effectiveness of teaching university undergraduates studying engineering, computer science and physics.
The project has now grown into a four-year effort, with Ho regularly traveling during summer and winter breaks to Vietnam and taking part in countless meetings as he works closely with officials and professors from Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City (VNU-HCM) and the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training to revamp higher education in the country and raise its standards to levels that are recognized by peer institutions around the world.
For his efforts, Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City has awarded Ho its Outstanding Contribution Award.
“Professor Ho has led the development (of) a national model for curricular reform for VNU-HCM as well as other universities in Vietnam,” wrote VNU-HCM Vice President Nguyen Due Nghia in a letter to CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison. The letter cited Ho’s tireless work—from helping to develop strategic plans and hosting training workshops to serving as a Chief Advisor and translating textbooks into Vietnamese—in helping VNU-HCM adopt and adapt the Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate (CDIO) Model that changed the curricular structure at the university and led to similar efforts at universities across Vietnam.
“On behalf of VNU-HCM, we appreciate CSUN faculty’s leadership and dedication to teaching innovation and education reform, and would like to congratulate you and Professor Ho for his outstanding contributions to the education in Vietnam,” Nghia wrote.
S.K. Ramesh, dean of CSUN’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, said Ho’s “contributions exemplify the outstanding work of our faculty in improving education so that it is relevant and contemporary. He’s an active proponent of the CDIO initiative that provides a model for universities in Vietnam to reform their curricula.”
Ho, who grew up near Ho Chi Minh City and immigrated to the U.S. in 1988, said he was honored to receive the recognition.
“The award definitely adds more energy to what I have been doing,” Ho said, “but the real satisfaction is seeing the progress that is being made in the Vietnamese higher education system.
“Vietnam is moving toward a knowledge-based economy, and this transition requires higher education in Vietnam to move away from rote learning to teach students how to lead and innovate systems, processes and products by applying technical knowledge to real and challenging problems, thinking outside the box, and working with other people in team-based environments. All of these skills are what industry, regardless of where you are in the world, is looking for.”
Ho said he thought that the CDIO Initiative—something he learned while a student at MIT as a systematic and methodological way of designing curricula and developing learning outcomes in engineering—could be adapted by Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City to meet the needs of industry and society and serve as a vehicle to achieve international accreditation criteria. The CDIO framework provides students with an education that stresses engineering fundamentals set in the context of conceiving, designing, implementing and operating real-world systems and products.
Ho explained that CDIO implementation centers on determining the needs of the stakeholders (i.e., employers, alumni, faculty, students) and using best practices in engineering education to address program philosophy, develop curriculum and design-build experiences and workspaces, implement new methods of teaching and learning, enhance faculty competence, and perform assessment and evaluation. The approach created a change model and a curriculum that enabled VNU-HCM to provide students with the skills, knowledge and attitude desired by the stakeholders, and with enough flexibility to be competitive in an international arena.
“It meant that they had to be willing to change the way they had taught for years, and it also meant the students had to be willing to change the way they learned,” Ho said.
Ho said officials with the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training has supported VNU-HCM’s CDIO initiative and its leadership in creating a model for implementing CDIO initiatives at other universities in Vietnam. Educators in disciplines beyond engineering and across the country have asked for VNU-HCM and his help in updating their curricula.
Over the past four years, Ho has taught classes in Vietnam, some via the Internet from Northridge, to demonstrate the new ways of teaching and learning. He has also hosted dozens of workshops across Vietnam and worked with government and university officials to find ways to promote widespread implementation of CDIO at universities in Vietnam.
“This, on a personal level, is a way of doing something for the country and its young people,” Ho said. “I am an educator at heart. All I have been doing is bringing an innovative education framework that I thought would help improve education and working with people who are receptive to the idea. Now it’s starting to have a national impact, and Vietnam is beginning to get recognition at the international level for the changes that it’s making.
“Talking about change is easy, but actually doing it is a completely different story,” Ho said. “To change something at this level and scale is monumental. But VNU-HCM was willing to try, and I think we’re making a difference for the better.”