Academic excellence spawns innovative ideas

Updated: 2011-06-17 07:37

By Li Xing (China Daily)

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On Tuesday, I had a chance to go through several ongoing science and technology research projects at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

Although I couldn't make head nor tail out of the algorithms or charts, or even the English introductions, there were young men and young women standing by ready to help. They seemed to understand the projects perfectly... not a surprise, since they had initiated them.

Mina Mikhaeel, who is from Egypt and a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, told me he was studying micro-grooves and hoped the results of his analyses would help produce smaller and more energy-efficient refrigerators, air conditioners, batteries and other devices.

Naveen Sundar Govindarajulu, an Indian student who is pursuing a PhD in computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is seeking ways to translate human thoughts and ideas into computer language. He told me he hoped his research would enable future machines to handle more difficult tasks and "help humans solve more complicated problems".

Mikhaeel and Sundar are not just PhD candidates, they are members of a group of Fulbright science and technology fellows, from 32 countries, who are coming up with ideas to improve our lives and deal with challenges facing human society through scientific and technological innovation.

Similarly, some 29 Chinese students studying in the greater Washington DC area have received scholarships from the Chinese embassy for research projects ranging from organic solar batteries to molecules controlling our sense of touch, and from a genetic treatment for diabetes to the use of biochemistry in oil exploration.

In all of these students, I sensed a passion for their research and a confidence in their future careers. Sadly, this confidence seems to be lacking among some college students, especially undergraduates, at home in China.

Riding the subway in Beijing last week, I overheard two undergraduates complain that their courses were dull. This is a common complaint on the Internet: a list of the "top 10 majors of hardship" contains nine related to science and engineering: electrical engineering, environmental science, construction, mechanical engineering, material science, thermal dynamics, chemical engineering, civil engineering and construction equipment.

Mechanical engineering is considered difficult because students have to spend their time drawing blueprints during summer vacation. Students of environmental science complain that they "have to deal with dirty water and exhaust fumes day in and day out" and worry that the work may harm their health.

In an article carried by the Hubei-based Changjiang News website on Wednesday, a reporter interviewed several undergraduate students whose majors included biology, environmental science, traditional Chinese medicine, law, human resources, and journalism.

In the article, an animal science major grumbles about spending whole nights watching a guinea pig and a student of traditional Chinese medicine and forensic science wonders whether she'll be able to find a job.

Of course, it is often difficult for undergraduates to see their future. But according to a study of some 227,000 graduates last year, 69 percent found jobs that made use of their studies.

The complaints do point to problems in the national college education system, however.

On the one hand, many students follow their parents' or teachers' advice rather than their own interests. Once they enter university, it is almost impossible to change their majors, even when they discover they don't like the subjects.

Meanwhile, students say they receive little guidance, and complain that many teachers are not particularly concerned with their job prospects. Many of them say their course materials are outdated and boring.

On the other hand, teachers complain that students born since 1990 are too involved with online games and the Internet to devote the necessary time to their studies.

Undoubtedly, there is truth in both positions. But as the projects of the Fulbright science and technology fellows and the Chinese students in Washington show, innovative ideas not only solve problems but also propel students forward in their careers.

It is up to the teachers to inspire these ideas in students, while it is up to the students to improve their attitudes and learn to think creatively about both their work and their careers.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily and its chief US correspondent. E-mail: