Like many developing countries, Vietnam is diversifying its physical and human resources beyond manufacturing and heavy industry into a knowledge-based economy. Accessible, high-quality education and market-based workforce development programs—particularly in technology and innovation—are key to making this transition.
Arizona State University is helping to address the growing demand for highly skilled and trained engineers to support Vietnam’s expanding high-tech economy. The Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program (HEEAP) is a collaborative effort between ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Intel Corporation, and the top engineering and vocational universities in Vietnam.
HEEAP focuses on three primary goals: improving the quality and rigor of university and vocational programs; making these programs more relevant to students and employers; and increasing access to engineering education for women and minorities.
To boost educational quality, HEEAP offers support and mentorship to selected schools and their faculty. The program provides instruction in curriculum design and applied and hands-on instructional approaches, and conducts student projects and events.
Intel received the U.S. Secretary of State’s 2012 Award for Corporate Excellence for its work with ASU and USAID on the HEEAP program.
HEEAP is designed to provide its participants with more than just new or updated curricula to take back to their classrooms, explains David Benson, HEEAP academic director.
“It works at a community-building level. The alumni are a part of something together for four to six weeks. They are active during this time, with colleagues from their own schools as well as with faculty members from other parts of Vietnam. Since this workshop is more than just a training or a vehicle for delivering content, these faculty return to Vietnam connected with each other and with ASU,” he says.
The program’s approach refocuses the schools’ curriculums from lectures and exams to an active, project-based model.
“Most of these faculty members have ‘grown up’ in lecture-only or teacher-centered environments, where the focus was on facts, derivations and single ‘correct answer’ questions. The experiences that molded their own teaching practices were primarily behaviorist,” says Benson. “It is a great pleasure to work with them to open their minds to other ways of teaching and to provide them with experiences that inspire them to develop classroom activities that capture the joy, creativity and intensity that comes with doing engineering.”
Ba-Hai Nguyen is a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology and Education who participated in a HEEAP cohort in 2012.
Recently, Nguyen developed “smart glasses” that help visually impaired people by recognizing obstacles and vibrating to alert users. Currently, 1.2 million people in Vietnam are sight-impaired, and about 300,000 of those are legally blind. After Nguyen presented his invention in September 2015, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng decided to finance a million-dollar project manufacturing the glasses for all Vietnamese people that are visually impaired.
Nguyen credits HEEAP Director Jeffrey Goss with being a positive influence on his career.
“I get a lot of inspiration and innovation from his mindset, working method and expertise. These give me more confidence to overcome tough moments during my research career and gain several small results step-by-step during the last three years,” he says.
He adds: "The HEEAP program has given me a really good chance to learn new working styles, the knowledge of a new model of transforming higher education learning and research.”
In 2014, Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology (HCMUT), a HEEAP partner institution, received accreditation by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) in the fields of computer science and computer engineering. This is the “gold standard” for engineering schools, according to Goss, who is also the executive director for the Office of Global Outreach and Extended Education in the Fulton Schools.
HEEAP has also transformed the schools’ curriculums to be more relevant and directly applicable to the needs of students and employers alike. As a result, Vietnamese schools are producing graduates who are far better prepared to begin and advance their engineering careers.
“We’re teaching students to work in teams to solve engineering challenges in a real-world environment,” says Goss. “This produces work-ready students who are attractive to employers, and facilitates an environment of entrepreneurship.”
Increasingly, these students are young women, who have traditionally been excluded from high-paying, high-tech jobs in Vietnam. HEEAP has provided more than 400 scholarships to women and girls who may not have otherwise had access to higher education. Presently, 18 to 20 percent of the students enrolled in schools participating in the HEEAP program are women. The goal is to increase the number of female degree holders to at least 25 percent of their graduating classes.
Educators trained at HEEAP-sponsored schools have implemented a variety of clubs, workshops and competitions, which allow students to apply the skills and knowledge they acquire in the classroom. Students are regularly invited to attend “hack-a-thon” events, collaborating intensively on software projects in competition with other teams. They also participate in maker forums—online workshops that allow participants to build and design with other students throughout the world.
“These events foster linkages between students, faculty and employers,” says Goss. “It also gives potential employers the opportunity to ‘test drive’ these students as potential employees before they graduate.”
Nguyen, who will be leading the University of Technology and Education’s newly launched School of Innovation Entrepreneurship, said his biggest takeaway from his involvement with HEEAP is the inspiration to innovate and make sustainable changes in both education and research in Vietnam, with the slogan "learn globally and apply locally."