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  • Retired but inspired: science lessons from China


Wang Hua, a 12-year-old boy in a poor corner of northwestern China, never thought that one day he would be chatting with a space scientist.

But thanks to a teaching initiative run by retired Chinese scientists, Wang and his classmates got the chance to meet Zhang Houying, the designer of China's first satellite, and learnt about the life of an astronaut.

Zhang is one of 25 members of CAS-ASPIRE, an association of retired members of the   Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which has travelled to 21 provinces and cities across China and delivered nearly 2,200 popular science lectures in schools.

Science teaching in China often places heavy emphasis on memorising information, and fails to give students a taste of the excitement science can offer. CAS-ASPIRE is designed to give children a sense of the 'scientific spirit' and imbue them with enthusiasm for the field.

Almost one million children have heard its members' lively talks over the past eight years.

Schoolchildren in China's Yanqing county
Photo Credit (NREL)

The next generation

Members of CAS-ASPIRE receive no pay for their work. They give their talks because they believe that inspiring the younger generation to become scientists is crucial for China's development.

"I used to care only about my own research," says CAS-ASPIRE member Qian Yingqian, a researcher in the CAS Institute of Botany. "But then I realised how important and urgent it is to tell the next generation the importance of protecting the environment and biodiversity."

When CAS-ASPIRE was launched in 1997 by Zhong Qi, a retired scientist and expert in popularising science, the project had no office or equipment and just 50,000 yuan (US$6,000) in funding from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

It approached target schools by sending 'menus', including each speaker's introduction and an outline of their specialist lecture. The school then decided which speaker to invite.

Zhong says that because it is up to schools to pick the speaker they think sounds most interesting, each scientist puts in a great effort in their 'pitch'.

Wang Ninghuan, a materials scientist, offers this introduction: "It is not easy to pass on to teenagers scientific material, which is often abstract, confounding and dull. In order to ignite their curiosity, we often use 'opposite teaching', beginning our speech with a question to draw the students' interest and inspire them to think."

CAS-ASPIRE encourages children to become China's
next generation of scientists
Photo Credit (British Council)

The chosen few

China has about five million retired science and technology researchers, and although CAS itself has many former scientists interested in offering lectures, not all of them are suitable lecturers for middle school students. When CAS-ASPIRE was set up, many of the academy's retirees applied to join it began but failed to pass the 'examination'.

The first step of the selection process is an assessment of the proposed lecture. The second stage is a small rehearsal, and the third is feedback from the audience.

What Zhong values most is an expressive and intelligent delivery — in other words, quality matters, not quantity. With such strict criteria, the number of members has remained at just 25.

But the group might soon need to expand because of growing demand for their lectures. The success of the project among schoolchildren has fired up interest from other potential audiences — including schoolteachers and college students.

Wang's enthusiastic 'opposite teaching' approach is much in demand. When he gave his speech, 'Marvellous materials and new technology', he first asked the students if they had seen the movie Titanic. They had.

Wang then asked: "How could such a big strong ship made of steel and iron be mortally wounded by mere ice?"

He says, "This question catches the students' attention and makes them curious to seek an answer. And we often display models to help our explanation."

Practical science

During his presentation Wang showed the students a pair of porcelain scissors. Fascinated, the children all wanted to touch them. Some even tried to cut their nails with them.

"This way of presenting scientific knowledge brings about learning through active participation," says Wang.

The CAS-ASPIRE lecturers do not overemphasise scientific theory, nor do they force-feed the children with facts. Instead, they try to intrigue the children. In this way, many students have discovered their interest in, and aptitude for, science.

A case in point was a student from a school in Ningxia. "Previously, I felt totally lost studying biology and had no interest in it," he wrote in a letter to CAS-ASPIRE. "But then Sun Wanru [a researcher in the Institute of Microbiology] came and presented the lecture 'How Biotechnology Has Changed Our Life'."

"Listening to his report, I fell deeply in love with biology and I have made up my mind to make a contribution to bioscience in the future."

Nor is this appreciation a one-way street.

"I will never forget a lecture I made in the playground of a small village school," says Qian. Strong winds and a sandstorm meant he had to write in big letters on a blackboard and speak as loud as he could so that all the students could see and hear.

"Even in such bad conditions, these young children listened to me very carefully. Everybody looked at the blackboard with great interest. I will never forget those eager eyes. I feel it is my responsibility to do this work."

Such a strong sense of social responsibility is what draws many of the CAS-ASPIRE scientists to the work. They are highly committed: none has quit the association since it was founded.

Teaching the teachers

The science teachers at the schools visited do not seem to resent the presence of the CAS-ASPIRE experts. On the contrary, the talks not only help quench youngsters' thirst for knowledge; they also improve the science literacy of their teachers. Moreover, for the campaign to proceed in an effective manner, an extra report session is prepared for teachers to improve their scientific literacy.

"A good science lecture can inspire a child with a lifelong interest," says Zhang Dayan, the headmaster of a middle school of Beijing, who has invited CAS-ASPIRE to talk to the school a number of times

The teachers agree that a project where scientists walk out of their labs and into the China's remote western regions helps compensate for the weaknesses of current science education and teaching in schools there.

"The project is a very useful way of enabling retired scientists to spread their knowledge to teenagers," says Li Jing, a researcher of Beijing Astronomical Observatory, who at 76 is the oldest member of CAS-ASPIRE. "The retired scientists can and do demonstrate their special advantage in popularising science"

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