Science communication: Donovan So

10 May 2024

Croucher Science Communication Studentships are designed for people with a passion to communicate the wonder and importance of science to a wider audience. Last year, we spoke to To Yuen Man, who was a recipient of a Croucher Science Communication Studentship in 2020. Recently we caught up with Donovan So, won a Science Communication Studentship in 2021 and studied at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently working for start-up company with a focus on AI.

So’s interest in education generally and science education and science communication more specifically was sparked by taking a sociology course during his undergraduate science degree (he graduated in 2019 with a degree in Computer Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology). “I was struck by how our level of education can affect our opportunities in life,” he told us.

Following a time at Credit Suisse as a software engineer, So gravitated back to education when he applied for the Croucher Science Communication Studentship. Given his background in science and technology, he found the course at CMU, a Masters in Educational Technology and Applied Learning Science, an appropriate blend of his interests and skills.

“I enjoyed the course at CMU,” he told us. “I really liked it because it taught me to be very rigorous with my approach to teaching. For example, there was a big emphasis on being goal-oriented. They taught us to rigorously define what we want our students to be able to do after a class or a course. We then had to work backwards to design the assignments and then to design the instructions that would facilitate that learning goal.”

We asked him if it had changed the way he viewed education.

“Absolutely. For instance, we hear a lot about gamification in education these days. But you have to be careful. The research I read taught me that just because something is fun, it doesn’t mean that it helps you learn. A lot of the time, learning is most effective when it’s hard, when you actually have to work hard for it, to practise through repetition, revisiting the same topic again. You see a lot of emphasis these days about making learning fun, but it takes hard work.”

We then asked So about what he thought about the value of science communication.

“I definitely think that science communication is important. Raising awareness is one aspect of this. So that could involve attracting people to a field that they might not have been aware of before. For example, I remember watching a lot of YouTube videos while at school. Those sixty-second videos on short topics in science really raised my interest in chemistry and physics, for example.”

“The other value of science communication, I think, is for social good. For example, if you wanted people to, let’s say, reduce plastic waste.”

So is currently working on a start-up in the area of AI, so we asked him about AI and education.

“First of all, I reject the idea that you can just slap AI on something and make it good. I think ultimately, everything you do in AI has to be backed by learning science and learning principles. I’m actually very optimistic about how AI could impact education. But I think it has to be done by someone who has an educational background and is informed by the science of learning. And yes, ultimately, teachers are going to have to get used to AI and learn how to make the most of it.”

Part of the experience of doing a Croucher Science Communication Studentship is to spend a period living elsewhere and learning new perspectives. So enjoyed his time at CMU, which is in Pennsylvania in the US. “It’s obviously a huge country, but, apart from the physical space, it also gave me personal space and a chance to review my own goals in life,” he said.

We asked So about his advice to other prospective candidates for a similar studentship. “Just start doing something; just start creating something. It could be YouTube videos; it could be tutoring people. I think in that process, you really learn a lot. I think a lot of the time, people are scared about teaching because they feel like what they know is not worth teaching. For example, when I was at UST, I was creating videos to teach people how to code, but then there was a time when I thought, What’s the point? Because everybody knows how to code, I thought. Then I realised that was probably because I was at UST and everyone I knew was an engineer! In reality, the majority of people don’t actually know how to code, and what I knew was actually valuable and worth communicating to other people.”

For those inspired by Donovan So’s story and interested in applying for a Croucher Science Communication Studentship, more information is available on our website. This opportunity is not just an educational pursuit; it’s a gateway to making a difference in how we perceive and interact with the scientific world.