The China solution

Monash is in partnership with China’s Southeast University, where students are coming up with creative graduate solutions to solve everyday problems. By Kathy Evans.

Zhang Xing
Zhang Xing (Cindy), with former trade minister Andrew Robb, is a Suzhou graduate
who devised a digital spoon that can store recipes and be used for
practical applications in the kitchen.

The loneliness would strike Monash alumna Zhang Xing (Cindy) most when she sat down to eat. As an undergraduate student at a university in the north of China, hundreds of kilometres from her home town, she missed her mother’s cooking and the comfort and connectivity it brought. Food, she discovered, is not  just about nourishing the body, but also the soul, reconnecting it with crucial parts of our own intimate history. “It was very different,” she says. “At my home we used to eat lots of soups made from vegetables or chicken, but in the north it was all fire food; baked or barbecued. Nothing tasted  like what I was used to.”

That first experience of homesickness became the driving force when, after completing her degree in mechatronics, she won a place at the Southeast University-Monash University Joint Graduate School (Suzhou) to study for a double Master of Industrial Design. One of the main aims of the international collaboration is  to produce students who can understand the current problems facing China and to think creatively about how to solve them. For Cindy, that meant focusing on food. What does it represent? What is it about the intense, evocative powers of certain flavours that make them powerful conduits for certain  memories and associations?

All over China, single offspring, the result of the country’s former one-child policy, are being separated from their families. And as the pace of life quickens, good-quality food and family meal times are becoming increasingly rare; traditional family favourite recipes are forgotten, replaced with Western  takeaways. What if she could bridge that gap with technology? Create nourishing, wholesome food on a cloud? And so, by the end of the two-year program she had created C-YUM, a digital spoon that could store recipes and do a lot more besides.

The elegant glass utensil – somewhere between a rice spoon and a soup spoon in size – can also detect food allergens and has a thermometer for taste testing, to prevent burnt tongues. In Chinese cooking, Cindy explains, chefs gauge whether a dish needs more spice through tasting rather than accurate measurements,  making them very difficult to replicate. But C-YUM can remember all the ingredients and download them to a smartphone or iPad. And for Cindy, who is allergic to egg, milk and tomatoes, a device that lights up if a dish contains possible toxins would be a huge boon in a world where allergies are  increasing.

What made her project so innovative, according to program director, Ian Wong, is that it can be easily extended into other areas, such as keeping track of the eating patterns of elderly relatives, or organising dinner parties for friends with various dietary and alcoholic preferences. “What we bring to  our teaching at Suzhou is the capacity to think originally and to analyse a problem. What is particularly important in our program in China is that we do not look to the West. We look at Chinese culture situations and things that are very important to the Chinese context.”

Monash is the first Australian university to receive a licence to operate in China. The graduate school, based 90 minutes from Shanghai in the Suzhou Industrial Park – a hub of 21st-century innovation – currently has 200 students enrolled in master’s programs in five subjects. Classes are in  English, giving graduates a global edge, and job success is high. On completion they are awarded both a SEU and Monash degree, and move into management roles with companies such as Siemens, Ford and Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba (where Cindy currently works as a design team leader).

Suzhou campus
Suzhou campus

Says Wong: “We are very proud of the outcomes. What we are delivering for employers is a very relevant and creative thinking which is something that has not been common.” Cindy agrees. More used to the traditional Chinese model of learning, she loved the creative freedom she was given at Suzhou to  think, dream and roam. “We didn’t just sit in the classrooms; we went out into the environment to look for inspirations for our project. I found that very empowering.”

She also believes the atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration, and the presentation skills she learnt, were paramount in finding work. “You need to get your ideas understood by people, so those types of skills are very important. I know how to get my ideas across very quickly.” But one of the  best things, she says with a laugh, was that it brought her closer to home.

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