Science education: inspiring the scholars of the future

25 January 2017

For as long as Vincent Yuen Shan Cheng can remember, he has always wanted to be a schoolteacher. Since September 2016, he has been Principal of the Jockey Club Ti-l College in Shatin.

After graduating from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) with a degree in biochemistry, Cheng experienced the first sense of doubt about his chosen career path and elected to pursue an MPhil at the same university as a “brief exploration” into the world of scientific research. He focused on molecular neurobiology but despite enjoying his studies, felt that a career in research was not for him.

“People were a little shocked when I informed them I was leaving university to start work as a school teacher,” he says. Less than two weeks after completing his MPhil, Cheng found himself standing in front of a classroom of 15-year-old students waiting to be taught biology.

Front of the classroom

At that stage, Cheng had no formal training in teaching (he later studied in his spare time for his teaching certificate) and did not consider himself to be a naturally gifted communicator so from day one, he reverted to “chalk and talk” and simply tried to convey all he knew about his subject.

Having spent nearly fifteen years on the front line, seeking to teach and inspire some of the Croucher scholars of the future, Cheng has some fascinating insights and observations about the role of science in education and society.

Despite being lucky in encountering students that possess a strong interest and talent for the subject, he often needs to convince them not to just view science as an academic tick-box confined to the classroom but “something alive and relevant to their daily lives”.

“Often, students see only hard study, memorising, exams, and classroom work and only think of science as a subject,” he says. To counter this, Cheng tries to inspire his students by offering examples from daily life. With biology, it is relatively easy because many students are interested in sport, athletic performance, or nutrition as it pertains to their day-to-day lives.

Making science relevant creates a time pressure because it’s not part of the formal syllabus but Cheng is not one of the reformers who believe students are put under too much pressure with a science curriculum that is too focused on rote learning.

“The problem is not the syllabus or the curriculum but how we deliver that system and how students, and parents react to it,” Cheng says. He maintains that there is a proper place for memorisation in science education, especially to develop the foundation skills and scientific vocabulary needed to progress further in science. “There are no shortcuts to achieving this,” he adds.

We don’t just need to train and educate more scientists, we need to teach more science.

“Students are always worried about pursuing a career in science even if they love the subject,” says Cheng, who observes students dropping science for subjects they think can offer more security and financial reward. He points to the challenge of teaching science in a city which largely relies on business and the service industries for its prosperity.

The importance of science

An important part of Cheng’s role as a front-line science teacher is trying to persuade students to consider scientific subjects as a first degree. For many it was just a “safety choice” in case they were not able to gain a place for their more heavily subscribed preferred subjects such as law or accountancy. He fears there are “structural defects” in Hong Kong, which is a short-term place where cost benefits are judged on short-term outcomes and results which puts science at a disadvantage.

“There is a deep-rooted paradigm that prevents us from investing in science because the results are often long-term, intangible and impossible to guarantee,” he says. As a determined advocate of a scientific education, he seeks to convince his students that the logical and analytical approach taught in science is valuable in many other career fields.

“I have to work hard to convince my students of this,” he says, and estimates that at St Mark’s School where he taught science for many years, only about 10-20% of students took a first degree in a science-related subject. He warns that some negative stereotypes act as a deterrent to young people interested in pursuing science at university. “I think science and technology in general are perceived by many young people as boring, instructional, operational, and logical so they conclude that it must be the opposite to creative,” Cheng reflects.

Cheng explains how evidence-based decisions are employed so that any new policy or measure at the College must be subject to rigorous analysis by data not introduced on the basis of intuitive guesswork. He also believes that data analysis of exam results in particular has helped him fine tune his teaching methods by assessing which students have performed well in different parts of the curriculum. This organisation and analytical thinking is inherent in the way he and his team approach problems.

“In science, we start with a very big problem so we can’t just jump to gross conclusions in one step- we need to break it down into manageable chunks and that discipline informs my approach to problems we face in the school,” he says adding that patience is a discipline essential in the field of education where people spend six years maturing and developing into young adults.

“My skills, mindset, and attitudes learned from a scientific education are helping me in my everyday life,” Cheng reflects. “We don’t just need to train and educate more scientists, we need to teach more science.”

Vincent Yuen Shan Cheng is currently Principal of the Jockey Club Ti-I College. He received his BSc and completed a MPhil in Biochemistry from HKUST focused on molecular neurobiology with support from a Croucher scholarship awarded in 2000. He accepted a teaching position at St Mark’s School and later obtained a MA and MSocSc in education-related fields from CUHK. After more than a decade on the frontline of science education, he worked for two years as a vice principal before accepting his current role in September 2016.

To view Cheng’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.