Dialogue with Eminent Scientists

By Yu BoRong

On January 24th, three distinguished scientists, Frances Arnold (Millennium Technology Prize 2016), Martin Chalfie (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008) and Sir Fraser Stoddart (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016) participated in a dialogue session in our school centred around the theme, ‘Schools in 2050’.

The conversation kick-started with a question about what education was like in the past, opening up a wealth of memories from the scientists’. Sir Stoddart shared about his upbringing as a farmer’s child who went to school, where he mingled with people who studied the arts and the sciences; Ms Arnold offered tales of a vastly different upbringing, where she spent more of her time out of school than in it. In fact, she studied the materials independently and spent her spare time doing other things like going for protests. According to her, this freedom to “let [her] live the way that [she] needed to be really made it possible for [her] to take [her] own route”.

Mr Chalfie then took over, starting with a disclaimer – “You could have had people who had exactly our same education and they wouldn’t have won the Nobel prize, they wouldn’t have won the Millenium prize, or maybe they did something completely different. We’re not a lesson.” Mr Chalfie also spoke about the time he worked in a laboratory for one summer in college where he repeatedly failed at a set of experiments. Taking it as a sign that he was not meant to be a scientist, he went into another field. On the same note, he shared about students who would enter university, extremely enthusiastic about studying Chemistry but after getting a B for their first paper, would be disheartened and promptly declare, “Well, this is a sign that I should go and do economics!” As he put it, this was a “phenomena that drove the faculty nuts.”, one which he felt resulted from teachers who did too good a job in training their students to be concerned about grades.

Their responses to how the education system were equally striking. Ms Arnold and Mr Chalfie agreed that the current system is quite good. Students being terrific at getting grades is an inevitable side product of the system, not a flaw. Assessments are unavoidable necessities but it is more important that students learn to apply their experiences. Sir Stoddart shared about an analytical chemistry course he attended, where the lecturer said to his students, “I planned this class about ten years ago. It’s a ten-week class. Nobody’s ever finished it.” He took it as a challenge. Using his knowledge from helping out with work such as marking out the pens on the farm, he finished five experiments in a day and completed the course in seven weeks. He was offered the opportunity to go over for the summer, where he was “bitten by the research bug”.

Perhaps, the dialogue can be best summarised with a quote from Mr Chalfie, “Grades don’t mean anything. It’s what you’re enthusiastic about, it’s what you like to do” – that should propel us forward. What an inspiring and perhaps revolutionary direction indeed to imagine the future schools of tomorrow.

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