Walking down Main Street at Disneyland, Kevin Chan Chi-ki makes notes on its cultural features. The setting faithfully copies parts of Walt Disney's hometown of Marceline, Missouri, a former railway town with two-storey brick houses and cobblestone streets. Chi-ki has visited the theme park more than 20 times, but this is the first time he's paid attention to features other than its rides and 3-D cinemas.
'I just saw it as a playground before. I really didn't know that there were things to learn here,' says the 16-year-old student from Ying Wa College.
This visit was a field trip for his work in liberal studies. A new, compulsory subject introduced with the revised senior secondary curriculum in 2009, it stresses learning outside the classroom. And leisure enterprises including Ocean Park and Ngong Ping 360 are keen to devise activities with educational elements that can fit this brief.
Disneyland offers a liberal studies tour that focuses on globalisation, one of six modules in the liberal studies curriculum. The theme park charges HK$200 a person for a liberal studies tour (about half the price of normal admission), but students must come in groups of at least 15.
Christine Ng Wan-kam, manager of Disney Youth Programmes, says the company began preparations in 2005. 'When the Education Bureau announced that liberal studies would be one of four core subjects under the new curriculum, we organised focus groups with teachers to see what they wanted,' she says.
'Disneyland has unique American characteristics. Disneyland's success in exporting its magic beyond America to Japan, France and Hong Kong is a good example of globalisation. To appeal to local tastes, we have to incorporate local culture into our offerings. Hong Kong Disneyland is the only Disneyland in the world that boasts Chinese restaurants. During Lunar New Year, the park is filled with Chinese elements like auspicious couplets, and cartoon characters are dressed in red.'
It's not lost on Ying Wa's acting principal, Allan Cheng Kwun-kit, that the US entertainment giant is vilified by some for driving cultural homogeneity - a less desirable face of the globalisation process.
The crucial element is that after the trip students should discuss the role of Disneyland in globalisation, says Cheng, who joined 10 of his students on their liberal studies tour of Disneyland last month.
'Whether [they decide] it's good or bad is up to them,' he says. 'We want them to develop critical thinking and come to their own conclusions after learning the facts.
'But we value the opportunity to go outside the classroom for learning. Liberal studies is a dynamic subject that is related to things happening around them. Having a chance for first-hand observation will certainly help them grasp the concepts better.'
Response to Disneyland's school tours has been overwhelming, Ng says.
'Due to great demand, we have since expanded our scheme to include kindergarten pupils. There's a considerable educational dimension to Disneyland's offerings. For example, we have the World of Physics [programme], which examines how science and creativity come together in the design of thrilling attractions. Through various experiments, students get to understand the laws of physics including Newton's first law of motion, and pneumatics.
'Students are engaged in discussions on how speed, friction, kinetic energy and other factors may influence the roller-coaster design process.'
Ocean Park has also launched two offerings aimed at teaching water preservation, biodiversity and sustainable development.
To teach ecological concepts, it set up a model of the Three Gorges Dam inside the Chinese sturgeon aquarium to illustrate how building the dam on the Yangtze River affected the migration patterns of the endangered fish.
'The construction of the dam blocked the route along which sturgeons swim from the sea to the Yangtze, where they lay eggs, leading to a drastic reduction in their numbers,' says Lily Cheung Ling-li, park senior education officer.
A ticket for the half-day programme costs HK$120, less than half of the usual HK$280 entry fee. Those who want to ride the cable car or other rides after the tour must pay HK$30 more for a day pass.
Cheung says students can relate better to the plight of endangered animals when they have actual encounters with them. So the park in Wong Chuk Hang, which features terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and dozens of exotic animals, is a good place to learn.
'The new rainforest was opened to the public last year, and we added a third offering to our liberal studies programme,' she says.
'The theme is how the planting of palm trees for oil destroys the rainforest. Students are sent to ask tourists whether they use palm oil in their daily lives. To their great surprise, students get to know that palm oil is used in many daily products such as cosmetics and snacks. Large tracts of rainforest were cut down to make way for the planting of palm trees. Students are divided into groups to play the roles of loggers and environmentalists and discuss the viewpoints of the opposing camps.'
Environmental conservation is also the main theme of the liberal studies programme launched by Ngong Ping 360 last year.
Ngong Ping 360, working with the Education Bureau in 2008, designed the programme, which consists of visits to mangroves, wetlands, villages and the sewage treatment plant on Lantau Island.
The day-long programme, led by educators well versed in geography, costs HK$260, including return tickets for the cable car ride.
'Students can enter the sewage treatment plant to learn about the water purification process. Afterwards, they visit the wetlands and mangroves, which are natural filters of effluents,' a Ngong Ping spokesman says.
With such an array of schemes being touted, Liberal Studies Teachers' Association president Jacob Hui Shing-yan says teachers need to make sure the organisers present both sides of the issues.
'Some schemes are just marketing ploys that don't really nurture students' critical thinking,' says Hui, who teaches at Christian & Missionary Alliance Sun Kei Secondary School in Tseung Kwan O. 'We are swamped by adverts that offer all kinds of liberal studies programmes. An organisation recently came to our school wanting to charge more than HK$100,000 for workshops where instructors would come to teach critical thinking. We would not consider programmes that charge such high fees.'
Despite some operators with dubious credentials, Hui says teachers should be encouraged to take students on excursions so that they can gain an understanding of real-life situations and not just confine learning to the classroom.
'Many issues, such as poverty and discrimination, do not strike a chord with students who have been sheltered from the grittier side of society. A student of mine who comes from an affluent family joined a reality programme produced by RTHK in which she worked with a dishwasher for a day. She told me it was the best lesson she'd ever had on what it meant to be poor.'