Derek Low shares how his love for science was nurtured, and how teachers here should avoid spoon-feeding
SINGAPORE – As a child, Mr Derek Low, 21, would spend numerous hours at the Singapore Science Centre.
“My parents were membership holders, so we used to come every other weekend to take in shows at the IMAX theatre, or look at the exhibits,” he said.
But it was not until his secondary school and junior college years that his curiosity was married with a desire to make things happen.
Referring to his leadership roles in his co-curricular activities such as the astronomy club, Mr Low said: “I learnt that if you want to see things happen, you have to actively take a step to do it, instead of simply talking about it.”
Since then, he has embarked on numerous laboratory projects at home, including building a Tesla Coil and fitting a MountBlanc refill into a Pilot G2 pen, which are all documented on one of his blogs, as well as, more famously, his self-modified dormitory room in the University of California, Berkeley, which made him a YouTube sensation as well as earned him a warning letter from the school authorities.
The video of his erstwhile dorm – he has since moved into a private apartment, like most second-year students – has garnered more than 1.6 million views and more than 10,000 “likes” since it was uploaded on April 30.
Mr Low, who has been featured extensively in the media – including CNN and Time magazine – was back in Singapore last week on his summer break.
He described himself as a typical student who rarely thought “out of the box” – even though he was president of his primary school’s science club and took part in several competitions – until he was in his teens.
He feels that teachers here should minimise the tendency to spoon-feed their students. Instead, they should give students the scope to explore and experiment. Said Mr Low: “I think teachers here should be more flexible, instead of giving students step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish an assignment, for example. Because this way, students are bounded by what their teachers or professors think.”
Mr Low added: “Students should be allowed to be adventurous. There should be more room for them to tinker with stuff, to experiment and take things apart.”
On studying in the United States, Mr Low said it was just as challenging compared to Singapore academic-wise. However, he enjoys the fact that students there have the freedom to experiment and come up with different ways of problem-solving.
‘No approach from Singapore companies’
Mr Low’s other passion is travelling and he also runs a blog where he shares his travel experiences.
Before moving to the US last year, he was staying with his parents – his father is a retired air force pilot and his mother is a housewife – and three siblings in Chua Chu Kang.
He decided to study electrical engineering and computer science in the University of California, Berkeley, because of its proximity to Silicon Valley. “That’s where all the opportunities are in my chosen field and I wanted to experience life in a US campus … and the weather’s great, of course,” he said.
Mr Low said his goal is to set up his own company after he graduates. As to whether he will do that in Singapore or seek his fortune overseas, he is keeping his options open. Mr Low will be back in Singapore in August as one of the ambassadors for the Singapore Science Festival 2012.
After his new-found fame, Mr Low has been offered summer internship opportunities by up to 20 companies in the US, including big names such as Google and LinkedIn. No Singapore companies had approached him, he said.
During the interview with TODAY last week, Mr Low said he had not decided which company to join for his internship. But he said the decision will not necessarily hinge on how well-known the company is. Rather, the company should be one which he feels will “fit (my) personality”.
Mr Low said: “After people have viewed the video, they see me as a technical guy who’s very creative and very good at programming. But that’s not something I want to do for life. I’m looking for something that involves entrepreneurship, and some smaller companies are offering that kind of job.”
In that regard, he believes there are many opportunities in Singapore for budding entrepreneurs, if only they would “just grab it”.
“In the US, you really have to work hard to find a company willing to sponsor you. It’s difficult to stand out, but here, there are many opportunities, schemes and incentives which make it easier to get started,” said Mr Low.