Vincent Cheng in his teaching days, promoting experiential learning among his students.

Recent trends in science education

6 November 2023

Back in 2017, Vincent Cheng, Principal of the Jockey Club Ti-l College in Shatin and a former Croucher scholar, talked to us about inspiring the scientists of the future. This autumn, we caught up with him again, to get his update on the overall state of play regarding school science education in Hong Kong.

We began by asking about the trends in the uptake of science subjects at DSE level.

“What we’re seeing, since the DSE system was set up in 2012, is that the freedom to choose elective subjects has led to fewer students taking a high number of science subjects for DSE. Sometimes, they just choose one, alongside other subjects. Whereas if they take several science subjects together, these subjects tend to support each other. So I am concerned to see this trend towards students becoming less broadly educated in the sciences.”

Why do students make these choices?

“I think some of them are worried that some science subjects might be too difficult for them to get the really high grades they need to get into university. We’re also seeing some good young scientists who aren’t getting the chance to take science subjects because their other grades, for example in language, aren’t good enough.”

“The focus on STEM is potentially a useful thing, but we need to see it as a mindset, about developing people who can operate across different fields of science.”

Cheng welcomed the recent announcement that science would be re-introduced into the primary curriculum in Hong Kong.

“I think children need lots of exposure to science, which should start at an early age. Science is all around them, in daily life, but we need to draw their attention to it at an early age. As teachers, we can inspire students to love science.”

We then discussed the enrollment rate of female students in science-related courses. “We’re seeing more girls go into STEM subjects overall,” he said. “But I’m not sure that we have yet broken down all the stereotypes around this area.”

One of the biggest things to have happened since we last spoke to Vincent is the Covid-19 pandemic. Had that had any impact on attitudes towards science education?

“As a biologist, it was impressive to see the advances in, for example, vaccinology, during the pandemic and the positive role science had to play. However, I’m aware that some parts of the community in Hong Kong and in Asia more broadly don’t have a lot of trust in the science behind the vaccines. So I’m not sure that Covid-19 has led to a greater interest in science. Perhaps it has left attitudes quite entrenched.”

And how about AI in science education? Finally, it seems that technology is poised to revolutionise the classroom, after decades of promise. What impact was he seeing?

“Students are quick to pick up on it and play around with AI. But teachers are more cautious and tend to see it as a problem. For example, there’s concern around issues like plagiarism. I don’t think that teachers are ready to take full advantage of AI yet. What people don’t realise is that making principled use of a new technology in a classroom requires a lot more effort and training than simply playing around with it at home. You can’t develop new methods of teaching overnight. I think it will take time.”

We then moved on to discuss climate change. Since 2017, there’s been a huge amount of data and discussion around this topic and a lot of young people seem to be very invested in it. Is this affecting motivation for the study of science at school?

“I’d agree that a lot of young people are quite aware of the issue of climate change in a general sense. However, I am not sure that they always relate it to the science underneath. It goes back to what I was saying about a science mindset earlier. We need to help students look at these issues across a range of subjects, to see how they are related. They might touch on issues related to climate change in geography or biology or physics. But at the moment, I don’t think the education system is bringing all that together.”

How about the way the business or NGO communities emphasise issues related to climate change or changes in our environment?

“That can help, but in the end, everyone has their own agenda. For science education to thrive, what we need, in addition to exposure, is for students to have hands-on experience. For example, I always thought that to teach about ecology, you have to get out of the classroom and get students to experience the natural environment for themselves.”

“Those are the two “Es” that we need to focus on in science education. Early exposure to science and hands-on experience of it. That’s what I’d like to see more of.”