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Diving Deep into Alternative Education with Melvin Zhang

Melvin Zhang, a research engineer at Solve! Education doing a sharing in front of an audience.

Is teaching really the only way to educate?

Meet Melvin Zhang, the man spearheading alternative, yet addictive, education — in the form of games. Melvin holds a doctorate in Computer Science from the National University of Singapore and is currently a Research Engineer, a unique role that combines his passion for education and technology, at Solve Education!.

In this Q&A session, we explore Melvin’s unusual approach to education through the use of technology.

Q: Can you tell us more about Solve Education! and what you do?

A: No problem! Solve Education! is a non-profit organisation that is devoted to helping underprivileged youth all across the globe receive quality education. According to UNESCO, in 2018, 1 in 6 young people were out of school even though having a proper education is a huge stepping stone in helping them overcome the poverty cycle. Hence, we hope to alleviate the gap in education access through mobile applications as these youths are likely to have access to smartphones given today’s digital world. As a research engineer, I mainly focus on how we can most effectively deliver quality education through our apps. For instance, selecting an appropriate set of questions to present so as to maximise learning.

IT industry sharing by Melvin at St Joseph Institution in our Career exploration Pathways programme.

Q: Why do you think an organisation such as Solve Education! is necessary when there are already teachers and classrooms?

A: Here in Solve Education!, our applications specifically cater to youth without access to learning. Oftentimes, these youth live in countries where the importance of education is not adequately relayed. Consequently, parents may encourage their children to start working at a young age instead of pursuing their education. This perpetuates the poverty cycle and our applications are designed to curb this problem. For example, our most popular download, Dawn of Civilization (DoC) can be played offline making it accessible to youth without a stable Internet connection. In addition, DoC is able to identify which skills users have yet to pick up and is able to modify the gameplay accordingly, allowing them to get the most out of their learning experience.

Q: What made you decide to join the education space/take on this role?

A: During my time in university, I was really lucky to have good teachers and lecturers that made learning enjoyable. It made me wonder what it was like to be on the other side of the classroom — to be the one imparting knowledge. This spurred me to sign up to be a Teaching Assistant, which only solidified my interest in education. Furthermore, I really like the idea of doing things that may last beyond my lifetime and can potentially transform the lives of thousands. As such, I feel that my role as a Research Engineer at Solve Education! perfectly combines my two passions, spurring me to join the education space.

Q: How has your experience with alternative education been so far?

A: It has been so fulfilling as I feel that we really bridge the gap between education and technology! There is a huge disconnect between educators, technology and the youth. Sometimes, schools across the world lack access to qualified educators and the remaining teachers may not be equipped with the necessary technology and resources to effectively deliver knowledge to the youth. Not to mention the youth who do not have access to schooling and high-end technologies. Through our work at Solve Education! and with our partners, we are perfecting our mobile applications to alleviate this problem. We are also really committed to the cause — an extension of our organisation would be Solve Employment! where upon completing their education with us, students will be granted opportunities for internships and micro-tasks under Solve Employment! to help build their experiences and for a chance to earn some money, putting their education to practical use.

I feel that what we are doing is really revolutionising the way these youth learn and I could not be any prouder of the work I am doing!

Q: What are your hopes for the future of education?

A: Hmm… Firstly, I hope that there will be greater reception towards the form of learning we conduct at Solve Education! We are currently an NGO running on donations. With greater acceptance, we will be able to attain more funding, support and expand our operations to more countries , thereby allowing us to touch more lives.

Beyond my work, I hope that there will be leaps and bounds made in the area of Ed-Tech as educators and technology should work together to empower one another. For instance, it is a long, expensive and tedious process to build a physical school to provide a venue for students to study. Given the prevalence of the Internet and technologies such as smartphones becoming increasingly more affordable to the masses, perhaps formal education no longer needs to be confined within the four walls of the classroom.

Q: Do you have a message for others in the education sector?

A: I hope that educators go above and beyond just teaching the content. I hope that they will strive to inspire the students and mould them into the best version of themselves as I am sure all of us have a teacher in our lives that we remember to be inspiring and crucial in helping us become who we are now. For me, it was my secondary school teacher and my PhD advisor. I also recommend explaining the rationale and context behind certain classes so as to help students better understand why certain lessons are conducted in a certain manner. This way, they will be able to appreciate the intricacies behind classroom planning and who knows, this might even motivate them to study harder!

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