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Q & A on the 4-year Science Experiment Curriculum

Experimentation and logical analysis are the two major pillars of scientific method that is responsible for the phenomenal growth of science and technology in modern times. Naturally, HKUST puts tremendous emphases on nurturing students' capacities in these two areas. To prepare for the 4-year program, the University has put in enormous efforts and resources to design School of Science's (SSCI) experiment courses. UST LINK talks to our Acting Vice-President for Academic Affairs, the former Dean of Science Prof Shiu Yuen Cheng to understand the rationale, work and challenges behind the undertaking.

Q: What is the approach taken to strengthen SSCI's design and planning of experiment courses in physics, chemistry and biology for the 4-year undergraduate program?

A: The development of logical analysis ability is already well integrated into most courses at HKUST. Yet we rely heavily on physics, chemistry and biology experiment courses to nurture students’ competency in experimental methods. When the 4-year undergraduate program is formally in place, most of the foundational science experiment courses will be built into the first or second year curriculum.

The new 4-year curriculum will be outcome-based, as spelt out by the University Grants Committee (UGC) — which means the contents and teaching activities for the lessons have to align with the learning objectives set out for students.

The portfolio of skills that individual institutions aim to achieve through learning is not vastly disparate, as they all include such abilities as communication, problem solving, leadership and working as a team. Yet the cultivation of these skills could hardly be achieved in a classroom setting. In contrast, well-planned experiment courses provide the niche and flexibility for outcome-based learning and teaching activities. The elements of cooperation, communication and problem solving can be easily integrated into the lesson plans — it explains why we attributed such weight to producing quality experiment courses when the essentials and fundamentals of the 4-year undergraduate curriculum were first conceived. Of course we understand full well that the challenges involved in launching the courses are also momentous. They are of two dimensions — in hardware and software provisions.

Q: What are the challenges incurred in hardware provision?

A: Two-thirds of HKUST students are on a science or engineering major. It is estimated that under the new 4-year curriculum, an HKUST student will have to take an average of 3 or more experiment courses in physics, chemistry or biology. To cater to this acute need for teaching laboratories, we’ll have to build 6 laboratories each with an area of 250 to 300 m2, which means in total we will need atleast up to 1,500 m2 of laboratory space. In this regard, I must say the pace of laboratory supply at HKUST, a research-based university, falls short of our demands accrued from rapid growth in research and teaching. We will be in dire need for laboratories when 4-year undergraduate program is installed, as by that time we should have additional faculty members and research staff on board.

We have applied for funding from UGC for a laboratory-building project at HKUST. We finally secured a grant for building an 8,000 m2 laboratory building for teaching and research, which was topped up with HKUST's own funding to expand the project area to 10,000 m2. The new infrastructure will be able to address our need for laboratory facilities for basic physics-chemistry-biology experiment courses. As the process involved in vetting funding proposal and fund allocation can be time-consuming, the project is scheduled for completion in 2014. In the interim period, say in the year 2012 and 2013, SSCI will cope with this shortage with a series of contingency measures — by maximizing the usage rate of existing laboratories. This can be done through exercising a no-winter-or- summer-break timetable and a 6-day week and 16-hour day roster.

Q: What is the School doing to strengthen its software provision?

A: The work in software provision covers curriculum planning and management, as well as curriculum scheduling and evaluations. In this regard, we have conducted a couple of learning trips, visiting overseas universities and their laboratories in the hope of seeking reference from their experiences. We have been to the University of California, San Diego and studied its Streamlined Process Management Approach (or Business Process Improvement Approach). We also visited Taiwan's National Chung Cheng University, which has transplanted MIT's Technology Enhanced Active Learning Laboratory onto its campus. Our Vice-President for Administration and Business Prof Y S Wong has also led delegations to England and Australia to observe and pick up the latest practices and concepts in the design and management of sizable laboratories. 

Meanwhile we have a flying start in the design of experiment courses' curriculum as well as the accompanying assessment methods for learning outcomes, which will be completed in half a year's time, and a trial roll out of this massive undertaking will take place in 2011. With the supports from the University and the dedication and concerted efforts of SSCI’s faculty and staff members, we are sure quality experiment courses in physics, chemistry and biology will be up and running in full swing in 2012.