Professor Darwin Tat Ming LAU
Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Awardee of 2019
(Category: Early Career Faculty Members)
Professor Darwin Lau received his BEng (1st class Hons) and BCS degrees from the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2008. He received his PhD degree in the area of robotics in 2014 from the same institution. From 2014 to 2015, he was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Intelligent Systems and Robotics, University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris, France. He joined the Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in October 2015 where he is currently an Associate Professor. His research focuses on topics in bio-inspired robotic manipulation, including cable-driven robots, musculoskeletal robots and building construction robots, and involves the development, kinematic and dynamic analysis, design, optimisation and control of these systems. In relation to his teaching activities, Professor Lau believes that hands-on and experiential learning are important elements in the education of engineering students. By teaching through hands-on robotic lectures, student robotics competitions, final-year projects and the development of prosthetics for those in need, Professor Lau’s goal is to increase the real-world relevance of learning and improve students’ levels of interest and motivation and, eventually, their learning outcomes. Notable awards received by Professor Lau include the 2014 University of Melbourne Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in the PhD Thesis, 2019 CUHK University Education Award (Early Career Faculty Member) and 2019 UGC Teaching Award (Early Career Faculty Member).
Part I: Teaching Philosophy
As a teacher/educator, Professor Lau asks himself the following questions.
- What is the optimal learning approach for the current and next generation of students?
- How can students be motivated not only learn but also to contribute to society?
- What is my role as a teacher within the university and educational ecosystem?
These questions have motivated him to reflect on changes in the methods of classroom teaching over generations (Figure 1).
- Gen. X (Fig. 1a) – Teacher–Student (TS): When his teachers were students, teaching was mostly unilateral, with lecturers delivering knowledge to students.
- Gen. Y (Fig. 1b) – Students–Teacher (ST): When he was a student, teaching became more interactive and bilateral, although it still only involved the lecturer and the students.
- Gen. Z (Fig. 1c) – Student–Teacher–Peers (STP): In the current generation, teachers are encouraged to foster peer learning so that students can learn effectively from each other.
Professor Lau’s philosophy for Generation Alpha and beyond is for a Student–Teacher–Experience–Peer (STEP) four-element learning modality (Fig. 4d) through the introduction of hands-on/experiential feedback elements to the STP mode. The feedback element can be any carrier that can show a cause-and-effect for the student’s actions. As he primarily teaches in the field of robotics, the carrier that Professor Lau naturally uses is robots. The experiential element of present courses/programmes, in the form of laboratories, excursions or internships, are typically very limited in availability and contact hours. His aim is to significantly increase this experiential element by bringing it into all forms of contact hours, including lectures, laboratories and projects, within the classroom and beyond.
(a) Gen. X (TS) (b) Gen. Y (ST) (c) Gen. Z (STP) (d) Professor Lau’s STEP philosophy (gen. α and beyond)
Figure 1: Evolution of teaching philosophies over generations
The goals of Professor Lau’s teaching philosophy are as follows.
- Make a transition from simply ‘delivering the teaching’ to ‘ensuring that students can best learn’.
- Improve students’ motivation and passionfor learning with respect to John Keller’s ARCS model: learner attention, relevance to the real-world, confidence to use their skills to contribute to society and satisfaction in growing their wealth of knowledge.
- Ultimately, improve student learning outcomes and train passionate professionals who can contribute to the development of society.
Approach to Learning and Teaching
Fun hands-on lectures: In the past two years, Professor Lau has been teaching hands-on lecturesfor MAEG3060: Introduction to Robotics (with a class size of approximately 60). His hands-on lecturesinvolve students learning in groups with real robot arms in front of them in all lecture classes(Figure 2). Compared with traditional lectures, this approach has the following benefits.
- Increased teacher–student interactivity to increase interest and effectiveness in learning.
- More efficient teaching of fundamental theory and mathematics and how it relates to practice.
- Making learning more memorable and visual compared with 2D media, such as slides and books.
- Increased student exposure to experiential and hands-on learning.
Figure 2: (a) Traditional lecture (left); (b) Interactive hands-on robotics lecture (right)
Figure 3: Classroom situation: (a) interactive classroom setup (left); (b) teaching interactions (right)
The hands-on robotics lectures are taught in an interactive classroom with the following features (Fig. 3a).
- Students are seated around tables in groups of around five, with one robot arm per group.
- The lecturer and teaching assistants (5 for a 60 student class) roam around the classroom to teach.
- The groups perform frequent hands-on exercises using the robot arm.
Three modes of interactions feature in the classroom under the STEP model (Fig. 3b).
- Student–teacher interaction – Inquiry-based learning: The classroom setting and hands-on exercises allow teachers to frequently interact with and ask questions of students to provide personalised learning. Student progress can be better observed and teachers can react before students lose interest and motivation.
- Student–student interaction – Peer learning: This approach naturally emphasises peer learning by requiring students to learn and perform hands-on tasks in groups. Students of different ability levels have the opportunity to work with and teach each other, fostering a supportive learning environment between peers. Moreover, groups that finish earlier are encouraged to help struggling groups, which reinforces students’ understanding and increases their confidence and satisfaction in learning.
- Student–robot interaction – Experiential and active learning: One crucial element to the new teaching methodology is the addition of interaction between the students and a robot arm. A series of hands-on demonstrations and exercises strongly related to the course content is completed by students. The purposes of these experiential interactions with the robot arm are as follows.
- Arouse students’ interest in and attention to, and the relevance of, the course fundamentals.
- Increase retention of knowledge about abstract concepts by being able to perform exercises (active) and remember challenges that are encountered and overcome (experiential).
- Allow students to easily grasp physical phenomena and abstract concepts within the topic/course through seeing and experiencing.
- Have a platform (the robot) for students to immediately observe the results of their actions (cause-and-effect), through which students can more directly realise which concepts they find difficult, allowing teachers to provide spontaneous assistance to students who appear to be struggling.
‘Won’t miss out any of us, makes sure everyone understands the topics thoroughly’ (MAEG3060 student)
Beyond the classroom:Professor Lau believes that learning happens not only within the classroom but more importantly outside of the structured setting in the real world where students spend most of their time. The real-world can ignite students’ creativity, sense of relevance and, most importantly, their passion. Professor Lau aims to inspire and generate an impact on students through a range of learning opportunities outside the classroom, namely (a) team robotic competitions, (b) practical hands-on projects and (c) a volunteer initiative to develop effective prosthetic devices for amputees in Hong Kong. These activities conform to the four-element STEP model, with the robots developed for competitions, practical projects or the prosthetic device for real patients becoming the external feedback element. For example, by allowing students to frequently test prosthetic devices with real patients, they receive immediate feedback on how to improve their designs.
Figure 4: Beyond classroom activities: (a) Robocon student robotics competition (left); (b) CU-brick project to construct masonry structures (middle); and (c) prosthetic devices for amputees and those in need (right).
In Professor Lau’s experience, this approach is much more powerful for inspiring and having an impact on students, as the direct feedback from seeing the robot, client or patient’s response improves the sense of relevanceand students gain confidence and satisfactionfrom knowing that what they learn can be practically applied and can even help others.
‘The project is so meaningfulinthat we can help peoplewith our professional knowledge’ (Kwan Yi YIP, MAE graduate 2017/18, volunteered to develop a violin-playing prosthesis)
Robot arm and tablet application for hands-on lectures:An important element in the successful delivery of hands-on lectures is the teaching material and exercises designed to create relevancebetween the course and hands-on content. For this purpose, Professor Lau developed the CU Teaching Robot (CUTeR) platform(Figure 5), consisting of a set of robot arms, a tablet application designed specifically for the course and a set of exercises tailored for the course content. This required the redevelopment of the syllabus and design of new teaching materialsuch that every lecture contains relevant hands-on exercises to facilitate learning.
Figure 5: (a) CUTeR; (b) 30 CUHK built robots; and (c) relevance between lectures and CUTeR
Smartphone application:A new smartphone (Android and iPhone) application was developed for use in Professor Lau’s MAEG3060 course in 2019/20. The application contains summary content, exercises and interactive elements in three sections: pre-class, during class and after class. The application allows students to review their course material easily and conveniently, but more importantly tracks their progress and provides feedback, thus helping to achieve a student-drivencourse.
Hands-on project and assessment:Besides hands-on lectures, Professor Lau’s course involves an assessment component based on an open-ended design project. To satisfy students’ desires to see their work as relevant to practical applications, they are asked to work in groups of three (peer learning)tocome up with their own idea for an innovative use of the robot arms and then to realise their ideas using what they learn in the lectures (relevance). Apart from the mid-progress and final report, the assessment also considers the following.
- Initial proposal to present their ideas and receive feedback on project feasibility from teachers.
- Five-minute ‘elevator pitch’ video to ‘sell’ their new inventions. This allows students to (i) stay abreast of modern presentation formats, (ii) improve their communication skills, and (iii) increase their sense of the relevance of the project.
Some of the inspiring ideas and demonstrations of students have included robots that can help with brushing teeth, park cars in a carpark shelf system, feed themselves and take care of plants and pets.
Research paper driven course:In 2018/19, Professor Lau developed a new course for postgraduate research students – MAEG5090 Topics in Robotics. As a course on advanced research topics, he decided to teach through selected research papersrather than a prescribed textbook. This increases the relevanceof the content and keeps the content up-to-date with contemporary research topics. One major assessment component is a literature review, for which students are asked to review a chosen robotics topic. This aims to improve students’ writing and literature comprehension skills as they are required to write cohesive essays in preparation for their theses.
Helping society – Student prosthetics programme:A recent initiative led by Professor Lau is the establishment of a student team to develop prosthetics for those in need in Hong Kong. Through a series of final-year projects, summer internships and volunteering opportunities, this project has partnered with the Prince of Wales Hospital (PWH) to provide affordable prosthetic devices for their patients (Fig. 4c). This experience has made Professor Lau realise that the roles of educators go beyond providing professional training to also include the teaching of social responsibilities and global citizenship. This programme has attracted students who are interested in helping others with their engineering skills. Through this experience they come to further appreciate their power to have an impact on the lives of others.
Development of Effective Teaching Practice
As an educator, Professor Lau believes it is important to share the development of innovative teaching practices. He has been an active participant and presenter to teaching and learning events, including the CUHK teaching and learning expo, Faculty of Engineering Teaching And Learning ENrichmenT Sharing (TALENTS) lunch seminars and the MIT-CUHK workshop on eLearning.
His work on hands-on robotics lectures was accepted as a conference publication and presented at the International Symposium on Educational Technology. This pedagogy was recently adopted by a departmental colleague, Dr Dongkun Han, for his General Education course UGEB2303 – Robotics in Action. Professor Lau discussed the pedagogy with him, shared his experiences and even supplied Dr Han with the code for the teaching tablet application.
The student prosthetics program initiated by Professor Lau involves not only his home faculty but also the Department of Orthopaedics and Traumatology and Department of Prosthetics and Orthotics from PWH. He finds that working with different colleagues and sharing their teaching experiences is a very meaningful way to grow as a teacher and contribute to education.
Apart from teaching, Professor Lau serves in committees within and outside his home university that aim to motivate future generations. For example, as his department’s undergraduate admissions committee chairman, he actively promotes engineering to secondary school students by teaching summer courses and giving guest presentations, university visits and workshops. As a member of the HKDSE Design and Applied Technology Subject Committee, he recognises the responsibility and importance of curriculum design for motivating students.
Professor Lau’s teaching philosophy can be summarised as follows.
- Mixed teaching modes, particularly hands-on experiential elements, significantly enrich student learning experiences.
- Relating what is taught to the real world allows students to realise how their knowledge gives them power to affect society.
- The roles of a teacher include (a) creating an enjoyable, comfortable, positive and effective learning environment; and (b) presenting a positive example to students and other teachers.
A video by the UGC showcasing Professor Lau’s teaching philosophy can be accessed here.︽Back to top
Part II: Achievements/Good Practices
Impact on Students’ Learning Outcomes and Generalisability
Professor Lau has demonstrated strong dedication in his efforts to use learner-centred approaches to engage, inspire and generate an impact on students both within and outside the classroom setting. His inspirational Student–Teacher–Experience–Peers (STEP) hands-on approach to the teaching of robotics within the classroom is appreciated by students for the improvements it makes in student motivation and learning outcomes.
Outside of the classroom, Professor Lau supervises many inspirational and highly practical undergraduate student projects. For example, the final-year project and volunteer programme for the development of prosthetic devices to help real patients at PWH has had a lasting impact on participating students. Students are inspired by these realistic and practical projects and the close relation they have to challenges that they will face after graduation.
Students working on these projects have shown a great interest in the discipline and their many accomplishments are demonstrated by several awards and extensive media coverage.
Awards received by students under Professor Lau’s supervision:
- Merit award in the Innovation Category at the 2019 “Challenge Cup” National Competition – Hong Kong Regional Final: Timothy CHOW and Edward SIU
- Merit award In the Innovation Category at the 2018 “Challenge Cup” National Competition – Hong Kong Regional Final: Sau Wai TAM
- Champion award at the 2017 Professor Charles K. Kao Student Creativity Awards: Hilary Hiu Yee CHENG
- 1st Runner-up at the 2017 Professor Charles K. Kao Student Creativity Awards: Hang Man YIP and Paul Hung Hon CHENG
- 2nd Runner-up at the 2017 Professor Charles K. Kao Student Creativity Awards: Yuen Shan CHAN, Crystal Ching Wah MOK, Mathew Fei Yeung MA
- 2nd Runner-up at the 2017 Professor Charles K. Kao Student Creativity Awards: John Mong Wah POON, Charlie Sin Hang TING, Kin Chiu YIP, Rudy Wai Man LEUNG
- Merit award in the Innovation Category at the 2017 “Challenge Cup” National Competition – Hong Kong Regional Final: John Mong Wah POON, Charlie Sin Hang TING, Kin Chiu YIP, Rudy Wai Man LEUNG
- Merit award in the Innovation Category at the 2017 “Challenge Cup” National Competition – Hong Kong Regional Final: Hilary Hiu Yee CHENG
- Project nomination for the ASM Project Award 2017: John Mong Wah POON, Charlie Sin Hang TING, Kin Chiu YIP, Rudy Wai Man LEUNG
- 2nd prize in the Innovation Category at the 2016 “Challenge Cup” National Competition – Hong Kong Regional Final: Samuel Sau Kin CHAN
- Merit award at the HKEIA Innovation & Technology Project Competition 2016/17: Samuel Sau Kin CHAN
- Best Project Award of the CUHK Faculty of Engineering Undergraduate Summer Research Internship
Awards received by the CUHK Robocon team supervised by Professor Lau:
- Champion and Team Spirit awards in the 2016 Hong Kong regional competition
- Runners-up in the 2018 Hong Kong regional competition
Media coverage of Professor Lau’s group and students:
- [China Daily Asia] 2016-10-19 Student invents cost-effective robotic prosthetic hand
- [Apple Daily] 2017-10-19 【唔係高達樣】中大研發線控機械人 空氣檢測/砌磚/雕刻瓣瓣掂
- [e-zone] 2017-09-26 中大研發 線控激光切割機械人
- [South China Morning Post] 18-04-17 Since losing an arm in a car accident, this Hong Kong man has learned to play badminton, taken up cycling and run a triathlon – next step is playing the violin
- [Ming Pao] 18-04-17 中大師生特製義肢 截肢漢自如揮琴弓
- [Yahoo Style] 18-07-18 獨臂琴師分享生命旋律
- [TVB] 19-03-26 中大助理教授研線驅動建築機械人冀拓展至物流等
Mentorship of postgraduate students:
- Professor Lau currently supervises 4 MPhil and 5 PhD students, providing them with training and guidance for their research work
- He has trained 15 teaching assistants in his course, among whom Dominic Yin Pok CHAN and Esther Yun Yee LEUNG received the Department and Faculty Best Tutor awards
Generalisation of Teaching Method to Other Disciplines
Professor Lau believes that his teaching philosophy (STEP mixed-mode teaching) and ideas (increased experiential learning) can also benefit other disciplines and improve student learning outcomes. In the adoption of the method by other disciplines and courses, the primary difference is in the development of a suitable carrierfor students to gain experience. The carrier may be in the form of a robotic or mechatronic system, virtual reality, physical subject or meaningful setting.
Important elements in the execution of the teaching strategy are the following.
- Increase the amount of exposure students have with this feedback carrier by bringing it into lecture classes and allowing frequent interaction outside of the classroom.
- The carrier should be meaningful and allow students to perform hands-on tasks with directly observable results, such that the relevance of learning and the confidence and satisfaction of the students can be improved.
- The course syllabus and lecture material should be adapted to seamlessly integrate the hands-on experiential learning element.