Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), Part 2

(international students in scientific areas of study need to possess a solid grasp of English to succeed as scientists or even to lay claim to being scientifically literate citizens of the world)

Yun Ying, a semiretired professor of physics education at southeast University in Nanjing, China, has pioneered a course that forces physics students to take personal initiative and teaches them the English that they will need to achieve their objectives

China is in the midst of one of the most remarkable expansions of higher education ever attempted and Yun Ying is passionate about reforming science education, and she has a lifetime of experience.

In her nearly six decades as a teacher, she has weathered the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Cultural Revolution" and benefited from China's opening to the West.

Now, the 82-year-old Yun is leading her own minirevolution. Her introductory physics course addresses a national priority, namely, to foster economic growth by producing not just more, but more creative, scientists and engineers.

Yun has been wrestling with the challenge of revamping physics teaching since she returned from a 1980 tour of major U.S. research universities, which convinced her that Chinese students who hoped to study abroad needed to learn English tailored to those academic subjects. She also realized that "it is very important to ask the students to do some work on their own initiative."

Those two principles underlie her "Bilingual Physics With Multimedia" text and CD-ROM, a freshman course she has been developing since the mid-1980s that has been adopted by ten Chinese universities.

The course not only teaches the English that students need to discuss physics but also requires students to research physics topics and present their findings to the class. That's a dramatic change from the memorization demanded in typical introductory science courses.

"There are no other texts like this for physics" in China, says engineer Xue Jingxuan of the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, who is also concerned about science education in China. Xue says few university teachers put time and effort into developing course materials.

Creating a course may seem insignificant compared to the challenge of reinventing Chinese higher education. University enrollments have jumped sevenfold since 1998, to 21 million in 2005, according to the Ministry of Education.

Not surprisingly, classes are crowded, teaching loads are heavy, and building sprees have left many universities with staggering debt loads.

Although funding has risen, it hasn't quite kept pace with the rising numbers, leading some universities to increase tuitions and try other means of raising funds.

Many Chinese educators are striving to reform their outdated curricula and teaching methods

Many officials say that the bigger challenge lies in reforming outdated curricula and teaching methods, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math. Teaching methods and curricula still emphasize memorization, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels, and the goal is to foster creative researchers capable of making discoveries at both the basic and applied levels.

"We have to have our own intellectual property," explains Rao Zihe, a structural biologist who is president of Nankai University in Tianjin. Rao fears that a lack of homegrown creativity will forever relegate China to the status of refining innovations made elsewhere.

Yun Ying is well equipped to take on that challenge. A 1947 physics graduate of Furen University, she spent one year in a master's program before joining what later became Southeast University.

Teachers with only a bachelor's degree were not uncommon at the time, although most university professors now hold Ph.D.s. She had taken English since primary school and thought it appropriate for science courses; but after the Communist Revolution, she says, "we all learned Russian".

Yun Ying's course deviates from the traditional approach in Chinese schools

The textbook contains standard freshman-level lessons in momentum and energy, harmonic motion, and wave-particle duality. All explanations are given in depth in English with Chinese translations of key passages. The CD-ROM includes video clips illustrating various principles.

The videos "gave a deeper understanding of how the laws of physics apply to daily life," says Hu Te, a Southeast software engineering student who took Yun's course.

A new requirement is that students select a topic, research it on their own or in a small group, and then present their findings in a class seminar; all in English.

Even more unusual is the requirement that students select a topic, research it on their own or in a small group, and then present their findings in a class seminar; all in English. Other students can ask questions, make comments, or challenge the conclusions which has been unprecedented conduct for Chinese undergraduates, says Xue.

Despite the use of English, Yun hasn't watered down the content. Some of that may be due to Southeast's ranking as one of the country's top ten comprehensive universities, with a particular strength in engineering.

Li Xin, a sophomore honors student who was required to take Yun's course as a freshman, says it was completely different from his high-school physics courses, which were "just theories and equations and formulas—and boring."

Yun is pleased with the positive reaction to her course. Two years ago, she offered a teacher-training course for schools considering adoption of the text and CD-ROM, and now she's working on a teaching and learning guidebook.

The increasing number of faculty members who were trained in the United States or Europe has sparked interest in reforming teaching at Chinese universities.

A one-semester course taken primarily by engineering students may have a limited impact on Chinese education, but for those calling for an educational revolution in China, it's a good place to start.

—Excerpts from "China: 'It's Important to Ask Students To Do Some Work on Their Own' "
by Dennis Normile, in Science, July 6, 2007, pages 74 and 75.

The main science-word unit.

Related articles about science: "Science Race"; STEM, Part 1; Scientific Specialties.