Sino-US forum gets underway

Dr. Christine Royce reports from the Sino–US Science and Education Forum in Shanghai.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Where did Monday go … well, due to the time difference, the delegation didn’t actually arrive until Monday evening … so today was the first day of the Forum. Some members of the delegation headed over this morning to an optional event—the Shanghai International Forum on Science Literacy of Precollege Students, while others took advantage of the down time to either relax, sleep in, or wander around the Yu Garden area, which is home to a series of shops and bazaars selling everything from silk scarves to Chinese tea to pearls.
The actual opening of the US–Sino Forum began after lunch at the Sinan Building which is where we heard the opening ceremony and keynote speeches. Opening comments were given by Mme. Chen Saijuan from CACSI (Chinese Association of Children’s Science Instructors” and Dr. Francis Eberle, Executive Director of NSTA. During Francis’s opening comments, he remarked that the differences between our countries are as important as the commonalities as we have much to learn and share. He further commented that the future of both countries is tied to science and education. This struck me as an important point, because earlier that morning, I took full advantage of trying to regulate my clock by sleeping in a bit and then wandering around Yu Gardens. While there with a colleague Steve Rich, we came across a group of upper elementary school girls in their uniforms, complete with backpacks and what appeared to be a worksheet in hand. Steve and I immediately assumed that they had a series of tasks to complete while there as they looked like they were searching for specific locations (albeit stopping and sharing in the treats for purchase as well). It was interesting to see these school aged children from China acting just like I have observed school age children from the United States doing. They were writing things down when they “got an answer”; laughing and joking with each other and they were obviously engaged in this time outside of the traditional classroom.

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I have yet to visit a Chinese school so I am not sure what their traditional classroom even looks like, however, there were many similarities between my observations of these children and those from my home state. I don’t know what subject they were trying to do or even if they were there for school reasons. I am assuming so as it was mid morning which is after the “normal” school start time and they were in uniforms complete with backpacks. I noticed the similarities first, rather than the differences which brings me back to Francis’s opening points. There are many similarities to my home world even in this bustling city. I have yet to feel “out of my element” or “in a foreign land” if you will—rather I found it easy to read the street signs while on the bus yesterday and today (even though I have no orientation as to where I am going); could locate the traditional types of stores—convenience stores, fresh fruit stands, tourist places and yes—even a Pizza Hut and McDonalds; and most of all, I was able to navigate around a new city with some basic skills and a map. The hardest part of the trip so far was figuring out how to turn the lights on in my hotel room and then keep them on (one must insert their key card into a wall slot while in the room for the lights to remain on—once removed, the lights shut off in a few minutes which is one way to conserve energy I guess).
Following the opening comments, we had the pleasure to hear a keynote speech from both the Chinese Science Educators and the US delegation. Mme Wei Yu is an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering as well as holding many offices in associations such as the Chinese Association for Science and Technology. She is internationally cited for her efforts in promoting “Learning by Doing” which is an inquiry-based science education project for grades one to six. Her presentation focused on her work in designing and implementing “Learning by Doing” and the successes she has had as well as the challenges she has faced. One of the points she reiterated was that science and education are important to strategic issues that affect our future. She also stated that science teachers are essential to reform … so we must share both countries experiences of teachers because we can learn from each other and inspire each other.  The US Keynote was given by Dr. Norman Lederman, who is Chair and Professor of Mathematics and Science Education at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His speech also focused on the promise and challenges of science education reform in the United States.
Throughout both presentations, many commonalities emerged—that both countries have teachers who put effort into and are dedicated to their fields; that global issues need to be addressed and worked on together—because we have much to share with each other; that evidenced based and science based reform requires teacher training and money; and that both the US and Chinese views on elementary science education are not always at the forefront of the daily teaching agenda since there is no mandatory test that measures young student learning. The first several were interesting to hear, but the last one was somewhat of a surprise for me. It appears that both countries teachers of science are fighting to make science a subject that receives priority in schools. The differences were few but demonstrated the major difference between our countries. China has a national curriculum and can guide what happens in all schools from as Mme Wei Yu stated a “top down approach” where as the US has local control of schools. Another difference that was illustrated related to Dr. Lederman’s statement that often there is “teacher resistance to change” in our country since it is often a swinging pendulum in the education arena, however, teachers “follow” the directives that are provided by the Ministry of Education in China. Before I get emails, I am not making a judgment regarding which it should be or why as I do not have enough information about the Chinese system to draw a fair comparison, rather I am just simply stating one difference that was clearly pointed out.
Regardless of which you focus on, the similarities or the differences, there is no doubt that both countries delegations have entered into the inaugural US–Sino Forum on Science and Education with open minds in order to build on a commonality—an obvious passion for our field and desire to improve education for our students.

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