Why Hong Kong teen science talents are few and far between

Government and schools need to work together more to nurture Hong Kong's fledgling scientists, say educators

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 6:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 1:16pm

In the murky universe around us, more than a handful of planets are named after Hong Kong teenagers - budding scientists who have won top awards in international science competitions.

Their achievements are rare enough for people their age but nurturing talents in the field of science is fraught with challenges. Scientific experiments consume much time and energy, and diverting local students' attention from tests, examination-driven tutorial classes, online games or other activities is never easy.

The only exceptions, for the most part, are probably those gifted in science. Schools fortunate enough to have abundant resources have groomed talented youngsters, some of whom have gone on to study medicine.

At the elite King's College, five of its past students have had minor planets named after them since 2011 by the International Astronomical Union in recognition of their top honours for their chemistry research. The honours have been bestowed at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the world's largest international pre-college science competition.

Earlier this month, a three-member team from the school - Davis Chan Tat-ngai, Otto Chu Pak-hei and Li Kwun Wing - won the silver medal in I-SWEEEP, the International Sustainable World (Energy, Engineering and Environment) Project - a ground-breaking science competition in Houston, Texas that is open to high school students worldwide.

Another team, comprising three Form Six students, took third place at the Intel ISEF contest recently held in the US city of Pittsburgh. The team members had spent a week in the United States with their coach, chemistry teacher Bob Lui.

Lui spends nights and days (including weekends) with the school's different research teams, who were recruited after screening at junior forms.

"We are inspired by the students with planets named after them; we want to copy their success," says one winning team member, Form Six student David Iu Shing-huk.

Like him, Edmond Yip Tsz-fung, now in Form Six and "screened-in" in Form Four, has immersed himself in experiments, often staying at the laboratory until 10pm with his teammates. During the Easter break and other holidays, they met with alumni who returned to the school to extend support and offer advice on areas including presentation skills.

It is very important to give students training after discovering their potential
Bob Lui, chemistry teacher

"Role models are very important," said Lui, who has certainly taken on a big brother role, at times coaching them on how to behave "like a gentleman". "Some of the students are highly motivated because they are gifted. We have a gifted education department in our school. It is very important to give them training after discovering their potential."

The projects carried out at the school are all related to daily life, says principal Chan Woo Mei-hou. One latest endeavour is about identifying a cost-effective way to make solar cells for generating electricity. One team's experiment confirmed that chlorophyll extraction from spinach, compared to extractions from other plants, offers the cheapest solution.

"Creativity begins with exploration. Many government schools close at 6.30pm, but not ours. Every month, our teacher provides science-related reading materials for junior form students," says Chan.

The school's long-standing, enviable alumni network, which includes Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and former director of the Hong Kong Observatory Lam Chiu-ying, provides another huge advantage. Hefty alumni donations allowed the public school housed in red brick buildings to buy advanced laboratory equipment.

In the remote district of Tin Shui Wai, where a large number of residents live in public housing estates, nurturing creativity is dependent on philanthropic support.

Thanks to a HK$10 million donation from the son of the school's industrialist founder, the Shun Tak Fraternal Association Yung Yau College installed a supercomputer that allowed it to train talented students in making 3D animations. The Yung family also sponsored software, 50 desktop computers and students' overseas trips to take part in international contests. Two of its students had minor planets named after them upon excelling in international contests.

This month, STFA Yung Yau College scooped about two-thirds of the awards at the Hong Kong 3D Animation Competition, making it the city's leading school in the field. "Students remain in school after class for the training. They come back even at weekends," says principal Alex Kai Sze-fai.

To build on its niche, the school requires all junior forms to learn animation and computer programming.

Kai agrees that one of the challenges of getting students involved in science is the excessive time and perseverance it takes to get results from experiments.

"You have to go through many failures, and keep repeating previous efforts to find out why you failed before and [where] to make improvements," he says.

To help other schools thrive in science, he called on the government to provide more financial support and promote social awareness about emerging fields.

"Most students choose to study subjects such as business and engineering at university. But there are other choices.

"In today's multimedia age, apps and animation are inseparable from our lives," he says.

He thinks the senior secondary curriculum should be expanded to include animation as an elective under applied learning.

Chemistry teacher Lui reckons only about 10 per cent of local schools have special provisions for nurturing young scientists. Apart from financial constraints, a lack of access to university labs and teachers' heavy workloads discourage schools from making research endeavours.

"Hong Kong also lacks scientific industries to absorb talent. For example, we have no pharmaceutical industry. The cost of living here is so high that students end up studying business or medicine when they know there will be no career path [in science] on graduation."

He is in the minority. Having pursued a PhD in chemistry, he chose to be a teacher. "Teaching is fun and it's very satisfying working with the students."


Students need to be inspired

To boost Hong Kong's international competitiveness, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying pledged in his policy address in January to actively strengthen science, technology and mathematics education.

To develop students' creativity and problem-solving skills, he revealed plans to renew and enrich the curriculums of these three key areas of learning, and the primary general studies curriculum, and to strengthen the pedagogical approaches to integrative learning and application skills.

Professor Nancy Ip Yuk-yu, dean of science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, supports the initiatives, describing the curriculum enrichment as a "great first step" towards all-round education. The promotion of science and technology also helps to broaden the scope of career opportunities. She believes it can put Hong Kong on the map for innovative research and development.

But she sees a need to inspire students by demonstrating to them how science affects their lives and can transform the world.

"Hong Kong students, in general, are interested in science. However, the environment around them affects their decision when selecting areas of study and future career paths," she says.

"For example, in a financial centre like Hong Kong, many bright students may be lured by the status and rewards of studying finance and business. It is important to provide them with guidance on the variety of career paths available to them."

She echoes the view on the importance of role models and mentors, particularly in nurturing female scientists. "Limited exposure to female role models may lead them to erroneously believe that science is a male-dominated profession," adds Ip, an exceptional model being a chair professor whose life science laboratory employs 52 staff, including 12 postgraduate students involved in seminal research.