Nestled on a mountain at Tung Wan, Cheung Chau, there is a unique campus that boasts breathtaking seaview. Locals believe it to be a research institute, with only a few in academia aware of its existence. The name of this school remains unknown to most people in Hong Kong. However, the teachers who are familiar with this school go to great lengths every year to enrol their students in its residential programme. Those who have attended classes cherish their experience and found it difficult to leave. What secrets lie behind the walls of this extraordinary campus?

The centre is divided into two campuses, with St. Francis Campus located on the hill.

A field study school designed for biology and geography teachers and students

It turns out to be a fieldwork school – Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre, an aided secondary school operated by Caritas Hong Kong. Built in 1978, Sai Kung Field Studies Centre was the first nature school in Hong Kong to provide outdoor learning opportunities for students. Due to the inclusion of field studies in the Advanced Level Biology and Geography exams at the time, the demand for courses at Sai Kung Field Studies Centre exceeded the supply. As a result, the Education Bureau decided to establish more field studies centres and approved applications from Sik Sik Yuen and Caritas Hong Kong. In 1995, Ho Koon Nature Education cum Astronomical Centre was built on the mountainside of Tai Mo Shan, followed by the establishment of Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre on Cheung Chau in 1996 by Caritas Hong Kong.

At the foot of the hill is St. Paul Campus, an old campus of Cheung Chau Caritas St. Paul Secondary School.

Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre aims to provide students with the right course and facilities that allow them to learn firsthand about nature and develop field research skills. The centre is divided into two campuses: St. Francis Campus located on the hill, and St. Paul Campus at the foot of the hill, which was an old campus of Cheung Chau Caritas St. Paul Secondary School. Each campus is equipped with different facilities that support subjects such as biology and geography, allowing students to explore and learn independently after school. Primarily designed for students studying biology and geography, the diverse curriculum at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre covers biology, geography, life-wide and field-based learning, environmental education for primary studies, as well as secondaryschool level astronomy and environmental education courses. Every April, Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre accepts applications from secondary schools across Hong Kong and allocates admission slots through a lottery system. Even after the transition to HKDSE, the demand for Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre’s programmes continues to grow. The inclusion of field studies in geography’s mandatory curriculum has only fueled the competition for places in the Centre’s courses each year.

Principal Chung Chi Yuen showcases the tools used to collect samples of fallen branches and leaves in the jungle.
Students utilise safe and simple sample collection tools to gather water samples from rivers and obtain data on the presence of E. coli.

Field trips or countryside learning, led by teachers of Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre, involve teachers and students venturing into specific exploration sites such as forests, rivers or rocky shores. Together, they collect data or samples like fallen leaves in forests, water samples from rivers and organisms residing on rocky shores. Upon returning to the Centre, students would utilise scientific instruments and apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired in their daily classes to observe, study and analyse their findings. The beauty of these field trips is that they take students beyond the confines of textbooks and into the real, tangible local ecosystem. This sparks their curiosity about their surroundings and sharpens their observational skills, eliminating their need to rely on memorising foreign examples during exams.

A classroom at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre.

A passionate principal and teaching team

Principal Chung Chi Yuen joined Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre as a biology teacher in 2007 and was promoted to Acting Principal in 2018. Having served at the Centre for 17 years, he revealed that he had pursued an undergraduate degree in Chinese herbal medicine. Eager to make the most of what he learnt at university, he aspired to become a teacher who does not simply lecture from textbooks. On top of that, his rich experience in identifying herbs in rural areas fostered a passion for hands-on fieldwork, which ultimately led him to join Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre as a biology teacher. When discussing the Centre’s location, Principal Chung highlights two key factors. Firstly, Cheung Chau’s small population ensures a rich and undisturbed ecosystem, free from urban disturbances. The absence of light pollution in the area facilitates field studies for students as well. Secondly, the Centre’s focus on residential programmes is supported by the convenient proximity of the Caritas camps, allowing students to easily stay on-site during their studies.

(From left) Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre’s laboratory technician, Zero; and Principal Chung Chi Yuen.

Principal Chung, who once lived in Cheung Chau for six years, shares, “The nightlife in Cheung Chau is rather limited. At most, people take a leisurely stroll to the pier for a late-night snack. The sports centre stands out as the go-to hangout spot for young people. The absence of a vibrant city atmosphere helps students stay focused, as if taking a ferry to Cheung Chau transports them to a whole new world and creates a unique learning experience that is distinctive from the traditional classroom setting. Students are thrilled to be here, and their level of concentration during classes is noticeably heightened. What is even more impressive is that these genuinely curious, positive and motivated learners can pay attention without our teachers constantly reminding them to do so.”

A local ant specimen display case crafted by Zero, a laboratory technician at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre.

The students at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre are focused and elated upon their arrival. This is mainly due to the incredibly capable and passionate teaching team. For example, the geography teachers who add a touch of creativity to their classes with “The Story of the Stone” have cleverly incorporated comic elements into the strangely shaped rocks found along Cheung Chau’s coastline, like the elephant rock and the human head rock, to spark genuine interest among students to learn about the concepts of weathering and erosion. Similarly, the biology teachers go the extra mile by crafting insect specimens, such as mounting local ants on tiny black triangular paper to showcase to students.

The rock exhibition area, curated and designed by the teachers at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre.
Educational pamphlets made by the teachers at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre.

The teachers’ commitment extends well beyond the classroom too. They design educational posters, curate themed exhibitions, develop engaging course materials and even create their own educational publications. They even take it upon themselves to craft their own measuring tools. Their passion for teaching shines through in every aspect, and many of them express that they, too, continue to learn alongside their students.

On campus, the aerial roots of a Chinese Banyan can be seen slowly strangling a mountain date palm nearby.

A game-changing technique to spark students’ interest in class

Principal Chung, who has dedicated over a decade to teaching, acknowledges that the majority of students have little interest in plants. “When I introduce plants to students, their response is often an indifferent ‘oh’,” he remarks. As a parent of two, with his youngest son just starting Primary One, Principal Chung understands the importance of sparking students’ interest to foster their learning motivation. “How can we make the subject of plants more captivating? On our campus, the aerial roots of a Chinese Banyan can be seen slowly strangling a mountain date palm nearby. This intriguing phenomenon reminds us that seemingly lifeless plants do actively compete for resources. Another educational approach is to introduce local poisonous plants, such as the common Indian mulberry – one of the four notorious poisonous plants in Hong Kong – with fruits shaped like goat horns and can be found in Cheung Chau. From our experience, this topic instantly grabs students’ attention. Moreover, despite their lack of limbs, snails get into intense battles by twisting their bodies in their quest for mates. After sharing this anecdote with my six-year-old son, he cannot resist observing every snail he encounters. When students develop a genuine interest in a topic, their potential can be fully realised. In our astronomy course, students are given astronomical instruments so they can use their smartphone cameras to capture celestial objects, such as the surface of the moon. They always try their very best to capture the perfect shot to share on social media. Even if the course content is not memorable, students will always cherish the delightful memories they make with their teachers, like indulging in late-night snacks at the pier, stargazing on the ground or embarking on field trips to local rivers. These experiences, coupled with exercises in the classroom, ensure a comprehensive understanding of nature.”

The stargazing equipment at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre.
The portable microscopes allow students to observe the characteristics of animals and plants anytime, anywhere.

The Centre’s classrooms are filled with a wide array of scientific instruments that never fail to capture students’ attention. Laboratory technician Zero shares the story of a biology student who lacked access to the appropriate microscope equipment at his school. When he used a microscope for the first time at the Centre, he was so mesmerised by the microscopic world that he meticulously cleaned the collected insect samples under the microscope. Before leaving, he admitted that his favourite subject had not been biology, but his experience at the Centre completely transformed his perspective. Through these courses, Principal Chung aims to enlighten parents and teachers about the powerful impact even simple scientific experiments or tools can have in igniting students’ passion for science. He explains, “While the courses at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre are STEM-oriented, our focus is not on the popular STEM disciplines like coding. Instead, we prioritise promoting science education. Through intensive courses that last from three to five days, we can kindle students’ interest in science whilst teaching them about Hong Kong’s ecosystem and planting the seeds of scientific curiosity deep within their hearts.”

George, a green iguana living at Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre.

Bringing students closer to nature

Principal Chung hopes to bring students closer to nature through fieldwork programmes. He elaborates, “As a parent myself, I understand that many children are restricted from exploring the wonders of nature due to their parents’ understandable concerns regarding their safety. However, I believe that children can only truly learn through direct contact with the environment. Nature serves as a classroom that nurtures children’s powers of observation, allowing them to compare real-life experiences with what they learn from books by describing and analysing their findings. Our ultimate goal is to instil a sense of responsibility towards the environment in students. But before this can be achieved, we must help them understand why they should be responsible. By highlighting the allure and joy that nature offers, we aim to cultivate students’ genuine affection towards the environment that naturally compels them to protect it. Children possess an innate curiosity and an insatiable thirst for exploration. These qualities should be nurtured from an early age, rather than waiting until they are older, to avoid creating distance between children and nature. Therefore, I hope to encourage students to take an active role in the development of nature by integrating environmental education into the existing curriculum.”

Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre borrowed endangered animal pelts from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department to display on campus.

Next to Caritas Chan Chun Ha Field Studies Centre are the Caritas camps – Jockey Club Ming Fai Camp, Oi Fai Camp and Ka Fai House – which provide both day and overnight accommodations for students and members of the public. Currently open for public reservations, Ming Fai Camp has the longest history and underwent renovation around 10 years ago. Oi Fai Camp and Ka Fai House have received funding support from the Jockey Club and are currently undergoing renovation, which is expected to be completed between April and June this year. Oi Fai Camp primarily caters to groups and includes an indoor sports field, swimming pool, archery range and rope course among other amenities. Ka Fai House features charming Spanish-style villas that can be rented either as individual suites or as the entire lodge. Guests who rent the entire lodge are entitled to use the communal living room and kitchen, making it particularly suitable for multiple families travelling together. Moreover, campers staying at Ka Fai House are granted access to the amenities provided at Oi Fai Camp. The campsite boasts a wide range of activities, including canoeing, stargazing, orienteering and air rifle shooting, all of which can be reserved in advance.