Teaching students to tell the stories of science

17 July 2021

Over some 20 years as a science teacher and, later, as panel head of the Science Research Department at Maryknoll Fathers’ School in Hong Kong, To Yuen-man has developed a passion for science communication.

To Yuen-man (Croucher Science Communication Studentship 2020), whose first degree was in Computational Mathematics and Operations Research at the University of Hong Kong, has to date led her students to successfully compete eight times in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), hosted in the US. She has mentored five outright winners, including the first Hong Kong female.

However, she still feels she had more to learn about how best to communicate – and teach her students to communicate – the purposes and workings of science to diverse audiences, an aspect of increasing significance in an era of multiple and instant channels of communication.

Indeed, it was her experience at ISEF that revealed the importance of science communications as an essential element of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, and inspired her to apply for the Croucher Science Communication Studentship in 2020.

The studentship has now assisted her to undertake the Science Communication MA course at the University of Kent, UK, a programme which claims to be unique in its inclusion of both practical and critical aspects of the subject. “Communications should be included as part of all science education,” To said.

When To was leading students in science projects, she noticed that students who enjoyed science and research often found communication far more challenging. “Generally, students who like science like research, reading and thinking, more than they do speaking – that was my experience as a teacher,” she said. Yet presenting the project to a panel of judges is a key skill required by science competitions.

In addition, while it was relatively easy to communicate with the judges of science competitions, some of her team’s award-winning projects were more difficult to explain to non-specialist audiences.

For example, over the course of a five-year project, one student used the Chinese metal ring disentanglement puzzle principle to develop algorithms that formed the basis of a fast method of constructing reflected binary code (also known as reflected binary) or Gray code, after the late Frank Gray, a Bells Lab physicist and innovator. 

Reflected binary code is an ordering of the binary numeral system such that two successive values differ in only one bit (binary digit). Such Gray codes are widely used to prevent spurious output from electromechanical switches and to facilitate error correction in digital communications such as digital terrestrial television. They are also applied to GPS and aircraft auto-pilot systems.

To remembers how journalists would look blankly at the explanations of algorithms and reflected binary numbers and sequences and often quickly depart to take photographs of robots and more tangible projects. “After this project, which was so impressive, I realised how important science communication was,” she said.

To said one key to good science communications is the ability to convey a sense of discovery – to explain a principle fully, without the need for elaborate theories and algorithms. She also suggested that if all school students were better educated in science, they would be able to analyse information for themselves.

“STEM education is about logical thinking, understanding, and analysing data, and being equipped with hands-on skills to really create something,” she said. Understanding and communicating a sense of wonder about science is as important as programming dancing robots or exploring 3D printers.

Her own interest in computing and mathematics was triggered when her father purchased a computer when she was still at primary school. He also bought a computer magazine containing a free program for a game for flying a virtual aircraft. Her entire family then engaged in typing in code until the programme finally worked, and to her delight, she could pilot an aircraft flying across the computer screen.

“I am still excited by computer programming because you can see the results as you go – just press ENTER. It’s so much fun! You can use different skills to write the programme you want,” she said.

At secondary school, she initially struggled to maintain her instinctive love of maths and science until she was inspired by two exceptional maths teachers with a gift for communicating. The first, according to To, was a special character with an informal and relaxed teaching style that would see him standing on a table or chair in class to talk about looking at problems from a different angle. The second was extremely patient, helping her to understand how to enjoy solving maths problems, sometimes early in the morning before school officially started. “Suddenly, I started getting higher marks,” she said.

To hopes that her course at the University of Kent will broaden her knowledge and help her understand how the subject is addressed in the UK. To date, much of her learning has been based around the history of scientific development and knowledge.

“I have been learning the history of science – I can see how we understand the achievements of the great scientists of the past and how we might apply their methods today,” she said. As those pioneering scientists did not have sophisticated labs, it is easier to replicate some of their experiments in the classroom and inspire school students about scientific fundamentals.

To hopes this knowledge can give her an insight into improving science communications and STEM education. “We need to teach school students to understand scientific principles, comprehend research papers, and teach them to analyse data, so they can make their own informed decisions,” she said.

To Yuen-man graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computational Mathematics and Operations Research from the University of Hong Kong in 1998. She received her Postgraduate Certificate in Education from HKU in 2002, and an MA in Information Technology in Education from Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2005. She joined Maryknoll Fathers’ School in 1999 as a science research teacher and is currently panel head of the school’s Science Research Department. In 2003, when schools were suspended in Hong Kong due to the SARS outbreak, she led a team of students to build a school intranet at home by communicating via instant messaging software. She later developed a new subject called Science Research and received a Top 10 Science and Technology Teacher Excellence Award from the China Association for Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education in 2009 for an innovative student science literacy programme. She has been invited to work with the Hong Kong government’s Education Bureau on teacher professional development for STEM activities and served as a guest lecturer for Creative Teaching at Education University of Hong Kong.

To view To Yuen-man’s Croucher profile, please click here.