As a child, Francis Lee loved watching the science - entertainment television programme, Mythbusters.
“The two hosts would carry out experiments in order to explore the plausibility of various myths. To do so, they would create machines or tools,” Francis recalls. “I thought it was cool that they were able to create everything they needed from scratch.”
“It made me want to learn how to make cool things too.”
With his passion for building and creating ignited, Francis later joined the National University of Singapore (NUS) to pursue a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering. The course is a unique interdisciplinary programme jointly offered by the School of Computing and the School of Engineering.
He has spent the past four years tinkering away, working on projects that tackled challenges faced by everyday Singaporeans.
“NUS Computer Engineering is the perfect marriage between electrical engineering and computer science,” says the now 25-year-old student.
Francis provides a demonstration at the School of Computing 14th STePs Semester Term Project Showcase.
“After you go through your core modules, you can choose from various technical electives before you decide which area of concentration to specialise in,” he recalls. “It gave me the opportunity to study technical electives from both electrical engineering and computer science.”
This flexibility of his degree programme was something Francis enjoyed greatly. Not only was he able to gain exposure to various fields, he also met like-minded peers from many different disciplines.
He says, “I got to know many great people through various activities and classes in school and it was nice to have like-minded peers to participate in hackathons with.”
He joined his very first hackathon in only his second semester, having just finished his Programming Methodology module.
With a senior as his teammate, they spent 24 hours developing a speed typing game.
Francis recalls, “With regards to joining hackathons in general, it’s always fun to see what we are capable of with the limited time and resources, and at the same time have a good time with my friends.”
He adds, “It’s a unique opportunity, and you’re pressured to complete a task within such a short span of time. Hackathons are useful learning experiences.”
Francis (third from right) with his friends at Facebook Hack Singapore 2018.
Over the course of his studies, he has gone on to participate in a total of 12 hackathons and related competitions, which saw him and his friends design tools such as a smart dustbin that can differentiate between food waste and non-food waste, a virtual drum set made from cutlery and accelerometers that could be played anywhere, a robotic arm that assists the elderly, and more.
“The robotic arm, called Handroid, mimics the movements of a human one,” Francis says. “The theme of that hackathon was to build something that would help the elderly.”
Inspired by the thought that the elderly may have difficulties carrying heavy equipment such as woks, Francis’ team developed the Handroid to cook and help with other physically straining tasks.
Using a human body motion translator, the device detects arm movements and communicates it to a mechanical arm. His team eventually came in second with their product.
Francis also went on to join the extracurricular club, NUS Hackers, which organises weekly tech meetups and workshops open to the public. As a core team member, he has helped to organise the annual hackathon Hack&Roll since 2018.
At Hack&Roll 2020, Francis helps a young participant review his code.
As a resident at Tembusu College, he was also able to explore wholly different electives, from studying and painting murals, to writing essays about comic books.
“The arts and humanities were never my strong suit but nonetheless I enjoyed the modules I took while at Tembusu College as they complemented my technical curriculum by giving me a change of pace, and more balance.”
As a resident at Tembusu College, Francis (back row, third from left) enjoyed the vibrant campus life and took the opportunity to try electives unrelated to Computing.
The diversity of his extracurricular experiences and academic training has gone some way to help him excel at his year-long Final Year Project (FYP), where he designed an augmented reality (AR) tool to help the visually-impaired to avoid obstacles.
“The wearer of my tool would know where a nearby object is,” he explains. “If there is an obstacle on the left or the right of the user, the tool would vibrate accordingly to warn them.”
Today, the multi-hyphenate wonders what the future will hold for him. While already in the midst of applying for jobs, he is also setting aside time to polish up his side projects.
As advice to prospective students, Francis draws from his own experience at NUS.
“One thing that worked for me was that I took on many opportunities and was open-minded about participating in different activities,” he says. It wasn’t only because it was fun, but also because it was an opportunity to meet more people and make friendships will last beyond my time in school.”
“Exploring different projects and activities will be fun, but it’s also important to learn how to prioritise and manage your time well. After all, balance is key.”