Virtual all-rounders

Overseas-education | Lisa Kao 21 May 2019

Despite being located in a forest away from the center of New Taipei City, Huafan University is not isolated. In fact, it is on the cutting-edge of innovation.

"The future of the world is about making use of technology to create better living," said principal Lee Tien-rein, "Such as adding extra functions to furniture or creating new machines."

Industrial design, smart living design, smart living technology and smart product development are some of the degrees offered by the university with a vision for the future. That is in addition to the usual environment or vehicle design courses.

Given the wide spectrum of courses, the products created by undergraduates vary - "for example, a sound box which can control the humidity and lighting of a home or a Bluetooth-enabled vase. We are now working on a Buddha statue that can double up as an alarm clock and a weather reminder."

The innovations from the students have gained worldwide recognition. A mobile medical equipment for knee injury patients and a shoestring collector designed by industrial design students won the Red Dot award in 2015, out of 4,680 submissions; while the warming building material designed by a student from industrial design was awarded the gold prize at the Czech Invent Arena in 2016.

That doesn't mean the Taiwanese university is resting on its laurels. It is constantly coming up with courses that are in line with social trends - such as the upcoming photography and virtual reality degree. "The first class will start in September with 50 students," said Lee.

All the hardware and software are already in place for the new course.

"Our lab is equipped with the latest programs. And award winning new media artist Huang Hsin-chie will be one of our teachers."

With teachers in 3D animation, technological arts, VR design sectors, the degree will give students an insight into using virtual reality technology for storytelling, game design, or even in medicine.

Virtual reality is the future, said Lee. "Now people emphasize images more than text. In the past, people were talking about 2D, and then 3D. Now, it has evolved into VR."

Apart from gaming and movies, virtual reality has many other uses, he pointed out. "You can experience a house viewing with VR, use VR when you are in the gym to feel like you're running along a river, or use VR to explain to patients what will happen in an upcoming surgery."

Storytelling, visual ability and computer skills are advantageous to would-be students, but is not a requirement. "We are not asking students to develop a system, but more how to make use of it."

To consolidate what they have learned in the classrom, students are required to practice in the industry for half a year in their penultimate semester, following up with the final semester to round up their knowledge.

As it is founded by the Buddhist community, the university believes that the humanities and technology both play an important role in a person.

Thus, the graduation requirements includes cross discipline and six arts studies.

"One-eighth of the credits should be from courses that are not in your discipline," he said.

"For example, if you are doing a technology degree, you have to take humanities courses and vice versa." Students have to learn two of the six arts - instruments, chess, literature, paintings, floriculture, tea art - to meet the humanities requirement.

The university also strives to expose students to the world outside Taiwan.

Said Lee: "We offer English classes even though the medium of instruction is Mandarin and we introduce foreign teachers of every discipline."

Both short- and long-term overseas experiences are also on the table.

"We are now partners with universities in United States, Europe, Australia, China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines. And we are talking to more universities in Italy, Japan, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries."

Currently, around 40 percent of students have the opportunity to go abroad, but the university hopes to extend that percentage to 60.

The principal believes that humanities, technological knowledge and world exposure would benefit the students. "They will not only have knowledge from their discipline," he said, "but will become special and talented individuals in society."

There are currently around 47 Hong Kong students studying at the university.

Lee said there is no limit to the intake, choosing to focus on desire and willingness to study instead of academic results. "We will look at secondary-school results and conduct an interview with the student," he said.

Improvement and academic scholarships are available for all students, as well as start-up scholarships for international students when they graduate.

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