Tokyo Institute of Technology: Virtual student exchange program lifts off: Bringing Ideas in Remote Discussion (BIRD)

From February 12 to 22, 2021, Tokyo Tech Winter Program conducted the virtual student exchange program Bringing Ideas in Remote Discussion (BIRD).

Traditionally organized as ten-week program that annually invites about 20 students from universities in Oceania to receive research supervision in Institute laboratories, Tokyo Tech Winter Program is conducted by Center for International Education. In light of the ongoing pandemic, Winter Program organizers developed BIRD for 2021.

Bringing together students from Tokyo Tech and the University of Melbourne, BIRD focused on the theme of public health. The program was organized in four parts:

1.
Preliminary activity for Tokyo Tech students
2.
Ice breaking sessions
3.
Zoom lectures on public health-related science and technology
4.
Collaborative group work and presentation of results
Associate Professor Yuto Koizumi of the Institute for Liberal Arts guided Tokyo Tech participants in the preliminary activity. He encouraged students’ development of a mindset to be persistent in communicating their ideas in English. He also introduced methods by which students could improve their communication skills in a foreign language. The training led to a remarkable improvement in students’ English conversation skills during the group work.

Tokyo Tech School of Computing Specially Appointed Lecturer Nobuaki Yasuo, School of Environment and Society Professor Naoki Kagi, and School of Engineering Associate Professor Wataru Hijikata served as lecturers for the program. Their lectures focused on computational drug discovery techniques using simulation and artificial intelligence, prevention of indoor airborne transmission of COVID-19, and technology to prevent blood clots in ECMO, which is used for severely ill patients with COVID-19. Invited lecturers from the University of Melbourne, Dr. David Collins of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Professor Frank Caruso of the Department of Chemical Engineering, introduced ideas for the latest technological products related to public health.Demonstration of magnetic levitation by Associate Professor Hijikata
Demonstration of magnetic levitation by Associate Professor Hijikata
BIRD participants’ group work began with assignments related to the content of the Tokyo Tech faculty members’ lectures. Divided into four teams comprised of participants from both universities, students tackled the assignments selected by their team. Four teaching assistants served as facilitators.

On the final day of the program, group presentations were made, and each participant presented their own ideas. In the program’s closing ceremony, Vice President Junichi Takada read aloud the certificate of program completion and expressed his strong hope for the continuation of exchanges between the students of both universities.

At the closing ceremonyAt the closing ceremony
At the closing ceremony

Participants’ comments
Shogo Seto (4th year, Transdisciplinary Science and Engineering)
Shogo Seto
There were two reasons why I took part in the BIRD program. One was that I was interested in Australia’s COVID-19 policy and in the frank opinions of its residents on the policy. Second, I like to interact with students from other countries who have different cultural backgrounds, and I wanted to interact with a variety of people through this program.

Since all the members of team HiLyre had musical backgrounds, we selected for our theme “using music and social networking to spread correct knowledge about Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs),” i.e., infectious diseases found in developing countries. During the discussion, the Melbourne students came up with many ideas. We were impressed by their unique and practical ideas, such as to use a famous song to spread on TikTok and to change the lyrics to something about NTDs. In the end, the Melbourne students replaced the lyrics of a famous song with our ideas based on their knowledge and warnings about NTDs and posted them on TikTok.

I had a great time talking with the Melbourne students about the situation around COVID-19, as well as food, manga, anime, and many other things. BIRD was a wonderful program with many students that I hope to meet again, offline, someday.

Takumi Matsunaga (2nd year, Earth and Planetary Sciences)
Takumi Matsunaga
I participated in this program in order to finish the Global Scientists and Engineers Course, and because I had a great interest in public health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since I’m also a member of the kendo club, I thought ideas from this program will be useful for the club as well.

Our team, CRANE — based on the program name, BIRD — brought many ideas concerned with an ideal environment to prevent COVID-19 infections. In the team discussion, I touched on many different areas of background knowledge (not only my biological mechanics background) and interesting ideas. Some of us focused on technology and devices, some took advantage of ideas used in Japan and Melbourne, and some made an idea of building designs. Since the directions of the ideas differed, we had difficulty deciding how to utilize this diversity and make a conclusion in the final presentation. In the end, we combined many of our ideas in the presentation. This program was a great experience to think about differences in ideas between not only countries but also ourselves.

Su Ping Alina Tan (The University of Melbourne)
Su Ping Alina Tan
I had the absolute pleasure of participating in BIRD, allowing me to connect with students at Tokyo Tech and learn more about developing technologies in the public health sector.

As a budding biomedical engineer, it was fascinating listening to the series of lectures by academics from both universities, and I found myself drawn to tackling the issue of detection and prevention of thrombosis in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) connectors.

Team Origami Quokka was composed of two Tokyo Tech students—Naoki and Voon— and three University of Melbourne students—Anushka, Daniel, and myself. We split ourselves into biomaterial and mechanical sub-teams based on our areas of interest, and ensured that each team had a mix of students from both universities.

Within two days, we introduced using either a laser or infrasound to detect blood clots, and redesigned the connector in SOLIDWORKS, incorporating a vibrating component to it, to prevent these clots. Our proposed connector would be constructed using PTFE with an internal PEG graft, which would prevent thrombus from forming inside the connector. As a group of overachievers, we also looked into the feasibility and regulation pathway of such a connector, and made future work suggestions.

From presentation by Team Origami Quokka
From presentation by Team Origami Quokka
As someone who loves public speaking, I convinced my team to present our ideas in a TV show-cum-panel discussion format, with myself being the moderator and inviting each of them to talk as “guest speakers.” I had a lot of fun during the program and wish to meet my teammates and new friends in person in the near future!

Jason Song (The University of Melbourne)
Jason Song
It was an absolute pleasure to be a part of the BIRD program. It brought us a great chance to review some of the leading technology happening to end this corona virus and bring our normal lives back. All the lectures were inspiring for me.

Team Koi (carp) & Koala discussed pharmaceutical development, indoor air quality, ECMO, personal protective equipment and the leading nanotechnology in the biomedical field. These topics were related to the pandemic and how we can solve real problems happening right now around us. The lecturers provided us with some great ideas, based on the current technology and limitations, and asked for our ideas in return. The communication between us — students from two entirely different cultural background and educational experiences — also widened our views and offered a chance to review the same issues from a different perspective. This was the exact reason why I decided to participate in the first place.

Communication on Slack
Communication on Slack
I really enjoyed our teamwork, communication, discussion, and friendship and felt so grateful for this opportunity. Hopefully, we can have more exchanges like this, and I will continue to follow program updates.

Organizer’s Comment
Hirofumi Saito, Specially Appointed Associate Professor, Center for International Education
This program was named to express the desire to communicate online, overcoming distance like birds, even when overseas travel is restricted. However, we had many concerns about whether students of different nationalities and backgrounds could suddenly communicate online, and it was unknown whether students from both universities would actively apply for this kind of online program.

All those concerns proved unfounded. More than 30 students from the University of Melbourne applied, and the nine selected students strongly wanted to interact with Tokyo Tech students. Some of the participating students from Tokyo Tech who had canceled participation in study abroad due to the pandemic were willing to use the program to have an opportunity for international exchange. For smooth communication between students, the TAs’ contribution was significant. They prepared carefully the ice breaking activities, and in the group work, they provided appropriate support to the students, considering their individuality and, especially, the English proficiency of each Tokyo Tech student.

I myself was amazed at the agile response of students to online programs. There was a team that created a dedicated logo and wallpaper that incorporates the playfulness unique to online communication, and this created a sense of unity among the teams. In a limited amount of time, students had good discussions about measures against COVID-19 and the future of public health. I believe that we were able to realize a remote discussion in which various ideas flew like a bird. I sincerely look forward to the day when the students from both universities will be able to meet in person.

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