Last year’s Policy Address advocated for the promotion of STEM education “for all”, “for fun” and “for diversity” in primary and secondary schools. However, many parents and teachers find themselves unsure of where to begin. Dr. Jimmy Wong, affectionately known as the father of STEM education in Hong Kong, reassures parents and teachers that they need not worry about the scope of their scientific knowledge, “None of us can claim expertise in everything. Let us position ourselves as research partners to our children and guide them through their academic journey, and embrace the delightful prospect of our children turning the tables and teaching us. Together, we will embark on a fun shared learning adventure.”
Disinterest in science among students in the past
Dr. Wong graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics with Astrophysics from King’s College, University of London, and pursued a Master’s and PhD degree in Material Science at Imperial College London. Before becoming a member of the Steering Committee on Strategic Development of Information Technology in Education, he was a researcher in Moscow, London, Mainland China and the City University of Hong Kong (CityU). In 2021, he was appointed as the Executive Director of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE). Although science was not part of the school curriculum in his childhood, Dr. Wong had his passion and curiosity blossomed in diverse directions. In particular, he enjoyed building and dismantling objects. “My father was an architect, and he kept all kinds of tools and materials – which I regarded as toys – at home. Via playing with them, I quickly developed a passion for creative endeavours, as well as the hands-on processes of construction and deconstruction. My father taught me the art of woodworking, so I knew how to use a saw at a young age. I even tried assembling tables, chairs and bookshelves with my own hands. When I was introduced to science subjects in secondary school, I developed a profound interest in physics and astronomy, which led to my choice of major at university.”
Dr. Wong has been active in the education sector in Hong Kong since 1995. He founded the Hong Kong Science & Creativity Society in 2002 and the Hong Kong STEM Education Association in 2016. Formerly the Centre Director of the Hong Kong New Generation Cultural Association Science Innovation Centre, he has nurtured numerous exceptional individuals in the field of innovation and technology (I&T). Since the 2000s, Dr. Wong has been a steadfast advocate of I&T education. However, he noticed that many students lacked a genuine interest in science and failed to grasp its practical applications in our everyday lives beyond the confines of academia. “The local curriculum emphasised rote learning and lacked real-life relevance. Science was seen as an ungraded extracurricular activity that was not particularly helpful for future studies. In addition, teachers at the time were not trained to teach science, which made promoting STEM education quite difficult,” he remarks. Despite these challenges, Dr. Wong saw a promising future for STEM education in Hong Kong. Even though it was more than two decades ago, he was convinced that history had demonstrated that human progress was closely tied to technology, which would only continue to play an increasingly important role in shaping our world.
Nurturing “Children of the Stars” to give back to society through creativity
“When students with good grades gravitate towards science, it will be a shame if they solely work hard to achieve high scores in exams. There are also students whose academic performance is not outstanding, yet they are creative and show a strong interest in the field of I&T. I hope to support both groups of students to pursue their creative endeavours.” Many talented individuals were nurtured when Dr. Wong was working as the Centre Director of the Hong Kong New Generation Cultural Association Science Innovation Centre, including nine “Sons of the Stars” and two “Daughters of the Stars”. The most well-known among them is Stark Chan Yik Hei, the first “Son of the Star” in Hong Kong. As a token of recognition for winning the Second Award in Engineering Category of the 55th Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his invention named Total Equip, an asteroid, 20780 Chanyikhei, was named after him by LINEAR. Dr. Wong recalls, “When I first met Stark, he had already made some remarkable scientific achievements and received numerous awards in the academic field. I had the privilege of accompanying him on his journey, from his university admission to the launch of his own business. Stark is truly an exceptional individual. Even though he was not a top student, he managed to forge a unique path through creativity, unwavering diligence and a resolute dedication to scientific research.” Also bearing the esteemed title of “Sons of the Stars” are Wong Sum Ming and Li Kin Pong, who have successfully commercialised their scientific innovation under the guidance of the Hong Kong New Generation Cultural Association Science Innovation Centre. During Form Three and Four, they invented the Self-sanitising Door Handle, an automatic disinfection device that operates continuously. In 2017, with the help of the government’s entrepreneurship fund, they founded Titanology Limited and introduced the Self-sanitising Door Handle to the market. Not only has their invention gained popularity among shopping malls and hotels, but it has also been patented in Hong Kong, Mainland China, the United States and Canada.
Dr. Wong points out that encouraging students to “fail” is effective in fostering their innovative and scientific thinking. He elaborates, “I believe in nurturing students’ curiosity through topics and activities that interest them. Instead of providing direct answers to their questions, I focus on strengthening their problem-solving skills. Sometimes, I even let them venture down the wrong paths – not irreversible ones, of course – so that they may experience failures. I believe that all students need space to explore their ideas. I can offer insights, but it is impossible for me to be familiar with everything in every scientific field. Nevertheless, as the thinking patterns in each scientific field are similar, cultivating innovative minds is paramount.”
Reasons behind the challenges in teaching STEM
In recent years, the Education Bureau has been strengthening I&T education and optimising the curricula of local primary and secondary schools. Dr. Wong believes Hong Kong has made remarkable strides in I&T education in the past seven or eight years. Local students have shown a high level of proficiency in STEM in academic exchange programmes and competitions. With easier access to new software and schools providing hardware like 3D printers to assist students in their creative endeavours, many students have been able to apply these resources adeptly in their STEM projects and come up with increasingly sophisticated designs and innovations.
Amidst the rapid developments in technology and students’ swift learning pace, many teachers still lack proficiency in teaching STEM. Dr. Wong attributes this phenomenon to the inadequate training provided to teachers. As a result, they often rely on traditional textbooks and conventional teaching methods. “When teaching STEM subjects, teachers often worry about teaching topics they do not fully understand. Students nowadays often bring forth new ideas during STEM classes or scientific research. If teachers lack experience in a particular field, they may feel uncertain about how to respond. However, it is impossible to be knowledgeable about every subject, especially emerging technologies,” Dr. Wong shares. “Teachers should set aside their egos and become their students’ learning or research companions. In STEM education and research, the roles of teachers and students are particularly interchangeable. Therefore, teachers ought to be open to learning new technologies alongside their students. For instance, ChatGPT was not launched until a year ago, but its prevalence has surged since then. As teachers learn how to utilise AI alongside their students, they can foster the future generation’s technological and digital literacy. As technology continues to evolve, it is crucial to teach students its appropriate, ethical and legal usage.
How can parents nurture children’s creative thinking?
In the future, most occupations will orbit around technology, including those in the cultural industries such as design, advertising, photography and performing arts. Even professions like law and medicine will heavily rely on technology. That is why Dr. Wong firmly believes that all students should embrace and have a basic understanding of technology. Many parents are keen to nurture their children’s innovative and scientific thinking and equip them with skills of the future as soon as possible. Dr. Wong is here to offer valuable tips, and one intriguing method that involves satisfying children’s curiosity through “destruction”. “At the Science Innovation Centre, there is a small room called the ‘destruction room’ filled with old electrical appliances. Children can spend time in the room and take apart these appliances for inspiration. I often encourage parents to let their primary school children ‘take things apart’. Although children tend to enjoy dismantling objects, most parents often discourage it. However, taking things apart is a valuable form of learning that satisfies children’s curiosity. If there are broken toys or damaged electrical appliances at home, such as fans, radios or alarm clocks, why not let children use a screwdriver to take them apart, study their structure and even try to repair them? Broken electronics often contain useful components like motors that children can repurpose for future projects.”
When it comes to cultivating children’s innovative and scientific thinking, Dr. Wong encourages parents to adopt the same approach he suggests for teachers. Even if they are not familiar with science, they should remain open-minded and encourage their children to explore and acquire scientific knowledge. “For parents who want to learn about science with their toddlers, reading is a vital starting point. You can start by reading a diverse variety of books together. Visit museums, check out science exhibitions or go to the park and connect with nature. Even everyday experiences like admiring plants, cars and architecture are closely related to science. Parents can also introduce children to STEM courses or construction toys to develop their hands-on skills. In recent years, the I&T economy has become increasingly important, not just in Hong Kong but all over the world. If your children aspire to study sciencerelated subjects at university, be supportive and cheer them on.” Dr. Wong encourages all children to persevere and keep their curiosity alive: “Even if your classmates, friends or parents say creativity is useless, just keep trying. One day, your dreams and ideas will come to life.”
At the 56th JSSE, participants were encouraged to infuse scientific research with the theme “rhythm” whilst observing and analysing their surroundings from diverse perspectives. Through this process, they are asked to apply scientific knowledge to solve social and environmental issues. This year, a total of 21 school teams were selected to advance to the final. For the first time since the pandemic, the exhibition featured three teams from schools overseas (Singapore, Thailand and India). Over the course of seven days, students proudly presented their STEM innovations at the Hong Kong Central Library Exhibition Gallery, vying for the esteemed awards. The overall champion was awarded to St. Joseph’s College for their exceptional invention named M-Starchion, which ingeniously modifies the biodegradable and affordable starch with crown ether to “trap” metal ions and purify water without compromising its quality. The first runner-up was won by Munsang College, who designed the Intelligent Zen Mattress (IZM). The project aims to improve users’ sleep quality by a combined effectof sound, aroma and temperature. The second runner-up was secured by Tsuen Wan Government Secondary School with their project VegeCallento, a machine that transforms vegetable scraps into ink and paper.