Learning to Love Science A Chinese Student’s Story
Vivian Dong 董维稚
If you ask children in Chinese kindergarten "What do you want to be when you grow up?" many will tell you that becoming a scientist is their biggest dreams. This was also my answer before I attended primary school.
In the first two years of primary school, most of us only have courses in Chinese language study and mathematics. The highest grade you can get on your test is double-hundred. Many students in my class could get this grade, but I was never able to get it. So in the eyes of my class advisor, I was never a top student.
At the same time, I always like talking in the class when teachers introduced something new, so my parents often got letters from my teachers during that time. Therefore, the first "lesson" I learned was that I should keep quiet.
During the third year of primary school, we started to learn English. I loved the mathematics more than the English or Chinese learning. I treated it as the first step toward entering the palace of science.
I finished all the questions on my exercise book in the first week of semester. I assumed that my math teacher would be proud of me. However, on the contrary, she was very angry and made me erase everything I had written on that book. I erased my immature handwriting, crying and crying. Accompanied by my tears, I learned my second "lesson": I should not do anything in advance.
My chemistry teacher in high school was a perfect student when he was young. He entered Nanjing University without taking examination, due to his great success in scientific competition awards. He always gave us his stories, like finishing five exercise books in one week. He was quite proud of these accomplishments. But his pedagogical technique emphasized repetition. He forced us to recite the reference answer of every question. If we wanted to think for ourselves we were criticized: "Who do you think you are? Will your answer be better than the reference one? Stop dreaming. Don't you want to enter into a college? Recite them!"
Because of the bitter pill I had taken in the first two lessons, I just followed his advice. Therefore, the third "lesson" showed up: I should follow the standard procedure of memorization, and never inquire on my own.
I distilled a lot from these three "lessons." As time passed by, I became a top student in their eyes, finally. But to my mind I became lost. I deviated my dream of inquiring, of seeking truth, of following the promptings of curiosity. I knew it but I couldn't change it. I became a good exam taker but not a scholar at all. Yes, I knew it, but I could not change it.
All I could do was to keep reading some new scientific articles on the magazines and doing some experiments by myself on every Saturday afternoon, the only break time of a whole week. Some of my students thought that doing these experiments was a waste of time, but I enjoyed it.
However, things changed when I came to study in the United States. As I took science courses in the States, I found that what I have learned is not important; the most important thing is how to learn. My fellow science majors are curious about the way you think, not just the answer you get. Dr. Tinsley, my physics professor, shows me a quite different world of learning physics. He encourages us to speak our thoughts; to do anything we want to do in advance; to be as creative as we can in the class. He prefers that we discover a physical law through examining our assumptions, through experiments, through discussions and explorations, not just writing it on the blackboard. He teaches us to make friends with science.
When I saw hundreds of flames making the shape of a Sine wave before my eyes, I almost cried. With the flame shining in front of my eyes, I knew that the true lesson of science is: speak out my thoughts, learn anything I want to learn, and be creative.
Today, when I look back on my experience, I find that in China, people worry too much about being “realistic” and they lose their creativity. I know that things can change in my country. I know that we Chinese are a very creative people. But we need to get over the idea that education is just about getting a high grade, entering into a good college, and finding a good job. Admittedly, this is difficult today, because competition for jobs is so severe, and the system of exams seems so necessary to many people. But there will be reform over time, and we, too, will learn to love science.
It is funny to say, but we need to become less “realistic.” Today Chinese students are sometimes like snails, bearing too many dreams, too much hope, too much responsibility and burden, for “success” as defined by society. We carry so much on our shoulders that we cannot run fast to our destinations. We need to let go of our burdens, and then we can run faster. Sometimes circumstances force us to let go of them. We do not do well on the standardized exams. Sometimes we have the courage to let go ourselves. And sometimes we receive support from talented teachers such as Dr. Tinsley. But either way, once we become less “realistic,” we come to discover, and love, real science. And we come to discover something about our own lives, too.