When Philip Siu Chung-ming, Shirley Tse Shu-hei, and Angel Liu Yuet-ling enter a classroom, something unusual happens. Textbooks are put away and replaced with slabs of wood and sanding blocks. For 30 minutes, the classroom becomes a workshop, as students focus on their craft.
Back in 2017, Maryknoll Fathers' School students Philip and Shirley, both 16, came up with their own Stem workshop to teach younger students how to make bookmarks out of wood.
Three years on, they have extended the programme to two primary schools and added 15-year-old Angel to their team, and now hope their efforts will help them reach the finals of the Hong Kong Youth Science & Technology Innovation 2020, in the category for Outstanding Stem Activity.
The workshop is about more than getting crafty and, inevitably, covered in sawdust. Along with woodwork skills, students develop their maths and biology knowledge and gain new social awareness.
“We teach students ratios by asking them to find the density of grit in different grades of sandpaper,” Philip tells Young Post. “They also learn to identify the cross-section of a 3D object with a matching exercise, using diagrams we drew by hand.”
Turning a splintered block of wood into a polished bookmark requires skill and patience. Students must use different types of sandpaper, moving from the coarsest grit to the finest, to smooth the wood.
“The coarser grits grind down the uneven surface of the wood, then the finer ones take care of the rest,” explains Shirley.
“If you mess up the steps, the surface of the bookmark becomes rough, and you have to do it all over again,” adds Philip.
Fourteen-year-old Cliff Wong Hoi-him, a student who took part in the workshop, says it gave him a lot to think about. For example, he didn't know that before the invention of sandpaper, craftsmen would use scaly crocodile or shark skin to sand down wood.
He also had no idea how much work goes into making wooden handicrafts – or how little workers are paid for their efforts. On the mainland, they receive just 0.70 yuan for every bookmark they polish.
Shirley and her teammates disguise this information in a maths questions, asking students how many bookmarks a worker would need to polish to cover the cost of a 4-yuan meal.
“We hope to make them realise that making a living is not easy, and to cultivate their empathy,” says Philip.
It’s taken the student teachers time to get their workshop running smoothly. After the first few classes, they made several tweaks to the worksheets they had put together for students.
“We’ve adjusted the difficulty levels of some of the questions students struggled to answer,” says Shirley. “We kept rewording the questions until no one had problems understanding them.”
Classroom management can also be tricky when doing hands-on activities with large groups of primary school students.
“It was really difficult to make them understand the science behind it,” Shirley recalls of the first workshops she taught. “We also had to brief them from time to time – with demonstrations – to make sure they got the steps right.”
They also need to take extra care when setting up the classroom for this sort of work, adds Philip. “For hygiene and safety reasons, we prepare plastic table covers and wet wipes, and we buy face masks to prevent kids from inhaling sawdust,” he says.
Like Cliff, Angel was also one of Shirley and Philip’s former students before she joined them as an instructor.
She says being on both sides of the divide allowed her to see how the workshop could be improved. “I am really happy to see how engaged and excited the participants are,” she says.
And while Cliff admits that the sound of the sandpaper sometimes made him cringe, it’s all worth it. “It was very satisfying to see my bookmark smooth and shiny,” he says with a smile.