Why Hong Kong children have fallen behind in science race, and the volunteers pushing them to catch up
Despite some isolated success stories, interest among Hong Kong students in science is falling, with ill-informed teachers and parents and school curriculum changes among the problems
If Hong Kong is ever to shine as a knowledge-based economy, the ingenuity of 300 schoolchildren on display at Hong Kong Science Park this month was encouraging.
They were competing in the finals of the Hong Kong Youth Science and Technology Innovation Competition (HKYSTIC), an annual event organised by the Hong Kong New Generation Cultural Association. With nearly 4,000 applicants from more than 350 local schools, it’s the city’s most popular science competition.
“Most important is the creativity and innovation – how they apply their skills from the classroom in tackling a real-life problem,” says Dr Jimmy Wong Kam-yiu, the association’s director.
This year, the overall champions were three Form Five boys from Po Leung Kuk Ngan Po Ling College in To Kwa Wan, who invented oil-absorbing materials in a gel-like form, which could be used for marine oil spills. It’s cheap to manufacture and once the oil is absorbed, it can be extracted. Both the oil and the absorbing materials can be recycled and reused.
It’s just the sort of technical ingenuity that could form the basis of the government’s vision of a knowledge-based economy, based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
STEM is a new buzz-phrase in education, and a new survey commissioned by the Croucher Foundation – a local independent organisation that promotes STEM – reveals much of it is taught outside the classroom.
The report’s authors compiled a digital map featuring “a rich and vibrant ecosystem for out-of-school STEM education in Hong Kong” consisting of 1,074 activities, unrelated to tutoring or exam-focused services. Typically run by retired academics, volunteers and enthusiasts, these activities range from field trips and camps to exhibitions, workshops, talks and competitions. They are all designed to engage students in science and technology, and are often delivered in Hong Kong’s country parks, nature reserves and streets.
“To engage in science is an adventure; from this landscape will emerge the future science leaders of Hong Kong,” says Professor Tak Wah-mak, chairman of the Croucher Foundation. Many experts think engaging youngsters in hands-on science at an early age is vital to stimulate learning.
The chief executive’s policy address in January underlined the role of STEM as key to the city’s hi-tech future, with a HK$200,000 one-off grant for every secondary school. However, there was no special support announced for science education outside the classroom, despite its record of success.
Stark Chan Yik-hei is one example. He had never been considered a gifted student at C.C.C. Tam Lee Lai Fun Memorial Secondary School. In 2004, after performing well at the HKYSTIC, the 15-year-old progressed to the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) held in the US. Competing against about 1,750 of the world’s finest young scientific minds, he was awarded first runner-up prize in the engineering category for his “Total Equip” project – a sophisticated, multifunctional robot developed for domestic security. As part of the award, Chan had a minor planet named after him.
Local media dubbed Chan “son of the star”, and he was accepted for an undergraduate course at HKUST in 2006, despite not having adequate formal qualifications. He wrote a bestselling autobiography and now runs a successful tech start-up company in the city called Bull.b.
Despite the government’s hi-tech vision for the city and Chan’s success story, HKYSTIC and other extracurricular STEM programmes struggle to get government cash.
“We are getting surprisingly little support,” says Wong. “It’s the bare minimum. The funding is a big challenge, as is recruiting the right staff.”
It’s a key finding of the Croucher Foundation report. Even though the public’s awareness of Stem has been growing since the Education Bureau’s promotion of such a curriculum in 2015, organisers say it has been difficult to obtain funding. This difficulty even applied to well-established NGOs and well-recognised competitions that had been organised for more than a decade.
The challenge is recognised by organisers of other highly respected STEM activities, such as RoboCup Junior, a scientific research-oriented open educational tournament where young students aged six to 19 design and build their own robots.
“We have not received a penny of government money in over 12 years,” says Maverick Luk Che-chung, chairman and founder of the RoboCup Junior Hong Kong Association. He says his family-owned SME contributes about HK$100,000 every year to keep the event running. The venue is usually donated for free but he still needs to cover costs such as insurance, power, lighting, promotion and event staffing.
RoboCup Junior is part of an international organisation that converts hands-on STEM training into competitive fun, with the home-made robots using artificial intelligence for tasks such as playing soccer, performing synchronised dance routines and completing rescue missions.
“This is a corporate social responsibility project to encourage kids to get interested in electronics. They are fully engaged in electronic engineering but they think they are just building a robot,” Luk says.
Since an encouraging start to the programme 12 years ago, the number of competitors has declined, he says. At its peak, the competition attracted about 800 local youngsters but only 400 are expected for this year’s event, in May. He says that artificial intelligence (AI) technology has advanced rapidly, leaving local students behind, and a Hong Kong team has not been sent to the world championships since 2007.
Luk claims there are very few teachers or instructors who understand robotics or artificial intelligence, and if they don’t understand it, they can’t inspire the students. This lack of knowledge is a common complaint in the world of STEM, he adds.
Wong Chi-kin, a senior member and project organiser for the Hong Kong Association of Science and Mathematics Education, organises extracurricular STEM activities for students and teachers. Founded in 1964 and with about 500 members, the association liaises with local community leaders to take STEM programmes to the streets, often aimed at kindergarten and primary school pupils.
“The first challenge is obtaining money and the second is recruiting experienced staff,” he says. There is an acute scarcity of science-trained teachers and few want to work on a project-by-project basis with no job security, he adds. The official survey backs up this view.
“Many of our staff, like me, are retired university lecturers who want to do something positive for their community,” Wong says. He thinks that while Hong Kong students still compare well with others in the region, society places “too much emphasis on finance, and not science and technology. So even if kids are interested in science, they tend to choose a career in banking or finance”.
“We can only arouse students’ interest and enhance the professional development of the teachers,” he says.
Luk agrees there are some wider challenges. He says the RoboCup Junior event encourages teamwork and friendship, but “in Chinese culture you have to win or there is no point in participating. Only one student can win first prize. I think 80 per cent of the problem is cultural – this need to win in Hong Kong stifles creativity in STEM,” he says.
Luk also points to the current secondary school curriculum, which places great emphasis on the four core subjects (English, Chinese, liberal studies and mathematics) at the expense of science, technology and engineering. “No students pick physics any more, but without physics in the modern world, what can you do?”
“The new curriculum is a big problem,” agrees C.K. Wong, making STEM training outside school even more essential.
The survey also highlighted parental objections to extracurricular STEM training as another key challenge for organisers. Some parents in Hong Kong, they say, think STEM has little relevance to daily life and/or significance to the career path of their child.
Wong says many parents disapprove of competing in HKYSTIC, despite its international reputation, because they fear the time spent will undermine their child’s exam performance.
“We probably have to negotiate with about 20 to 30 per cent of parents,“ he says.