For the love of science, ask a question!

What happens when you encourage a group of Vietnamese kids to ask questions and more questions?

The kids at Hoang Hoa Tham Secondary School had been busy either cramming for their coming end-term exams, daydreaming about vacations or debating their teen pop idols.

But one early summer afternoon in Saigon, their minds are almost restless with questions.

What causes birth defects?

Some twins look so different. Are they even twins?

Why do I have to sweat this much?

How can we treat all the trash to protect our environment?

Full of pubescent energy and surprisingly eager, Nguyen Thanh Nhan half-walks half-runs with his friends to the computer lab.

They don’t want to waste a moment knowing that they will have to give the room to the next batch of students in just half an hour.

Some of the old computers cannot catch up, but after all the technical glitches are solved, it's time to bombard the real scientists with questions.  

“This is so fun. They talk to us in our teen language,” Nhan said, implying the scientists were way cooler than he had expected.

“And of course it’s great to learn. I usually have a lot of questions about things around me and the chat helps me find the answers,” he said.

Doan Tuyet Minh types as she chats with scientists from her school's computer lab in May.

Four time zones away in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Le Ngoc Lieu is sitting in front of her own computer, equally excited.

The postdoctoral fellow at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, one of the few Vietnamese female researchers in materials and chemical engineering, is handling some of the questions over the internet.

There are nine other Vietnamese scientists connected to the same chat room, including one from Norwich, the U.K., and one from Versailles, France, where the day has just begun.

Lieu says she and her fellow scientists hope they can inspire students one way or another, and talks about her own scientific awakening.

“Many people become scientists after they are influenced by others, myself included,” she says.

“I remember one day my physics teacher used Einstein’s theories to explain what’s happening around us. I was really impressed and always wondered how he could do that.”

“That thought has led me to where I am now,” Lieu explains.

The researcher is happy when the students ask about the things around them as well as life as a scientist.

“Some students ask what drove us to become scientists, and the difficulties and the joys. I hope that our answers can at least give them a broad image of the life and work of a scientist,” she says.

A girl is seen at science fair in Hanoi in March 2017. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tam

The pursuit of knowledge and the promotion of social mobility through education have always been the cornerstones of Vietnamese society. Most families don't hold back when it comes to educational spending.

Vietnamese students did not perform as well as they used to, but still managed to stay above the OECD average. Graphic from OECD

In general, Vietnamese students thrive. The Program for International Student Assessment released by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development late last year showed Vietnamese high school students perform really well in science. The country ranked eighth out of 72 economies in science, above the U.S. and many European nations.

And yet for years educators and parents have been struggling to create a new generation of scientists large enough to put Vietnam on the global research map. With a few exceptions, many Vietnamese researchers cannot get published internationally. The ones who can are often those with overseas training.

According to the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), from 1996 to 2011, only 13,172 Vietnamese-written scientific papers were published in ISI-covered journals. The figure is only equal to approximately one fifth of Thailand (69,637) and Tokyo University (69,806), one sixth of Malaysia (75,530), one tenth of Singapore (126,881), and half of the National University of Singapore (28,070).

To put that into perspective, the population of Vietnam is more than 17 times higher than Singapore, three times more than Malaysia, and nearly 1.5 times above Thailand.

Then there’s a problem with the media. Last year, the national education television channel VTV7 was launched for young audiences, but there's no telling if kids are watching it.

When Vietnamese teenagers go online, they are more likely to read about pop stars than scientists, and TED talks can’t compete with gameplay videos on YouTube.

In a rare case, the story of high school student Pham Huy and his robotic arm for disabled people broke a few weeks ago, but that’s more about the controversy surrounding his U.S. visa, and less about his invention and his love of science.

That day at Hoang Hoa Tham Secondary School, there were only three reporters observing the children and their Q&A sessions with the scientists.

The chat project itself is tied to one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world.

The Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam has localized a U.K. program called “I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here” since 2016, bringing it to 11 schools in the south with a more straightforward name, “Chat with Scientists”.

The format is the same: a panel of scientists in various fields comes together, online, to take questions from school kids in real time. Their conversations can be revisited on the official website later.

The research unit, located at Ho Chi Minh City’s Hospital for Tropical Diseases, is already juggling many important tasks, with research projects involving HIV, dengue fever, tuberculosis and malaria.

But reaching out to young kids and telling them all of their questions deserve an answer is also high on their agenda.    

“We believe that online interaction will create equality and encourage students to raise questions, and help even the shy ones express their viewpoints,” said Vu Duy Thanh, who manages the schools engagement team at the research unit.

An online chat room can also bring in scientists from different places, from wherever they live and work, he said.

A boy uses a microscope at a science fair in Hanoi in March 2017. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tam

For Pham Thu Nhien, shyness was not really a problem. The inquisitive, bespectacled girl just did not see any reason why she had to wait another year to formally learn about genetics.

“It’s not that I don’t want to raise my questions in class. I’m in eighth grade now but we won't start learning about genetics until next year,” she said.

“I have many questions and I’m glad I can ask the scientists,” she said. “My parents also love the fact I can chat with real scientists.”

It may sound like a cliché, but watching Nhien and her friends stay focused, exchange giggles and get excited with every response on their screens, one can’t help but think about the moment in their childhoods when the idea for their dream job started taking shape.

One could also easily refute the long-standing misconception that Vietnam doesn’t have a questioning culture. If Vietnamese kids don’t ask enough questions in the classroom or at home, it’s only because they are not encouraged to do so.

Standing quietly and giving the kids complete freedom, science teacher Nguyen Thi Thuong Nga is glad that her students want to learn even if the "scientists have to work hard and stay up late."

For young people who want to become scientists, they need to know both the glamor and the sacrifice, something that must be learnt beyond their lessons.

Two girls at at a science fair at Hanoi University of Science in April 2017. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tam

“Science has to come from passion and the teenage years are the best time to explore that passion,” said Dr. Le Thanh Quang at the Vietnamese Academy of Forest Sciences, who received some questions about pollution.

“I just hope that more younger people will get closer to science,” he said.

But it’s a learning experience for the experts as well.

Dr. Nguyen To Anh, a medical researcher, said the sessions are a thrill.

“Most of the questions are interesting. Some aren't simple at all and I have to check the books and papers to give the kids the right answers.”  

New York Times bestselling author Andrea Beaty has published many inspirational books such as “Rosie Revere, Engineer” and “Ada Twist, Scientist,” which feature children characters who symbolize innovation, creativity and persistence.

Via email, she told VnExpress International that “all kids have an innate sense of curiosity which makes them natural scientists.”

“For parents, it's sometimes hard to know how to handle that or how to nurture it. One of the best things parents and teacher can say to kids when they ask questions is, "I don't know. Let's find out!"

“Show the kids that the process of exploration is the whole point of science. It's an adventure that's more fun together!” Beaty said.

A sign held during the March for Science in San Francisco, California on April 22, 2017, which reads "Donald Trump, I have a science teacher. Do you?" Photo by AFP/Josh Edelson

For every inspiring day like this, there are many other days when it feels like science is losing around the world.

Just a few weeks earlier, scientists had to march elsewhere to prove that the world needs science and facts.

A few weeks later, and the U.S. has pulled out of an important climate change agreement because its administration believes climate change is a hoax.

And despite all the great economic feats that scientific achievements have made possible, the future of science seems to be reliant on funding. Several developed nations have threatened or already slashed budgets for scientists, while developing economies struggle to find more money. For instance, Vietnam’s research and development expenditure in 2011 was a meager 0.19 percent of gross domestic product, according to the latest data from the United Nations.

Ironically enough, it also requires money to inspire the next generations too.

The Oxford University Clinical Research Unit is still trying to secure more funding so that it can expand the “Chat with Scientists” program to more schools in the north and central regions.

Championing female scientists and engineers, as well as artists and world changers, “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” could provide an answer to monetary issues. The book by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo made crowdfunding history by attracting more than any other children’s book. Now it’s a bestseller around the world.

Speaking for the team, the authors said it’s important for children, and especially for girls, to know that they can be anything they want.

“They have the right to explore wildly, to be as ambitious as they want,” they said in an email, hoping to bring the book, which has been published in 26 languages, to Vietnam soon.

Doan Tuyet Minh, a student at Hoang Hoa Tham Secondary School, would definitely love a copy. Her idol, Marie Curie, is one of the scientists honored in the book. The Nobel laureate is best known for her research into radioactivity and cancer treatment.

But on that day in May, her inspiration came from the online conversations in her school’s computer lab.

Her dream? “Studying biology and curing diseases,” Minh said, without hesitation.

From the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences in the U.K., Dr. Trieu Anh Trung would have been proud. 

“Obviously, we can't expect all the students to dream of becoming scientists, but after the chats, if just a few do, it is more than good enough.

“The goal is to motivate them to do more research themselves, to understand the things around them. And from that a love for science would hopefully be kindled,” he said.

After all, in the wise words of W. B. Yeats, education is all about lighting a fire.

By Minh Nga

 

 

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