A holistic approach to science education – Interview with Dr. Janet Chan, HKU Outstanding Teaching Award 2020 Recipient
The article features an informal interview with Dr. Janet Chan. Dr. Chan is a Lecturer of School of Biological Sciences and the Programme Coordinator of Master of Science in Environmental Management at HKU. She received the 2020 HKU Outstanding Teaching Award and the Award for Teaching Excellence 2019-20 of the Faculty of Science.
Tracy: Congratulations! Could you briefly share with us your teaching philosophy and how that underpins your teaching approaches?
Janet: C. S. Lewis once said “the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” Students can have different “deserts”, whether it is a lack of motivation to learn, hatred toward a subject, or trouble grasping concepts. I believe a great teacher encourages imagination and inspires students to achieve beyond what they thought to be possible, helping them engage and support their learning. I therefore adopt a holistic science education approach in which project-based learning is a significant component. I adapted the framework of Larmer and associates and incorporated eight elements into project-based learning design: a challenging problem or inquiry, sustained inquiry, authenticity, student voice and choice, reflection, critique and revision, public product, and impact. I added the element “impact” to the original framework because I regard impact as tangible evidence of students’ contribution to the betterment of the environment.
Tracy: Among these elements, would you please highlight or elaborate on some for us?
Janet: Let me highlight three of these essential elements. That is, “sustained inquiry”, and “student voice and choice”, and “authenticity”.
During the process of “sustained inquiry”, I adopt a constructivist approach, meaning that I act as a facilitator to ask students questions to guide them in the correct direction. I conduct regular “chit-chat meetings” with students in an attempt to build a community of learners in which they can learn from each other. Students are also involved in real-world tasks and actual contexts. They are required to design products and services for their target communities. For example, students run recycling programmes to engage the public and raise their awareness. Through the programmes, people can learn more about waste reduction, which is a critical environmental topic in Hong Kong. These real-world tasks led to a sustainable impact for improving our environment.
Tracy: I am aware that you emphasise internationalising teaching and learning and developing global citizenship. Some colleagues found it challenging to achieve these aims among STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students. Could you share with us your approaches?
Janet: To me, internationalising teaching and learning does not mean just sending students abroad or admitting more international students to the class. Instead, it should incorporate the international, intercultural, and global dimensions into the curriculum, co-curriculum and other aspects of student learning so that students can have internationalised learning both outside Hong Kong and on campus. I internationalised my teaching by integrating internationalisation at home and experiential learning programmes. Within the curriculum, I tried to create a close connection between the subject learning and the real-world relevance across national and cultural contexts. For example, when I taught environmental health risk assessment, which involved many scientific theories and calculation, I introduced relevant news and overseas cases to illustrate how to operate this scientific assessment. Students expressed that the real-world examples made the concepts less abstract and scary and that they learned how complicated scientific concepts could be applied to real problems. I also created inter-university student academic exchange platforms for students to learn about intercultural perspectives.
Meanwhile, experiential learning is an important component of my programme. I incorporated an overseas experiential learning component into two of my courses. I actively involved students by inviting them to co-design the learning activities and assessment tasks before, during, and after the learning trips. I found that the service-learning components, ongoing reflective practices, and students being empowered to learn as partners to be enabling factors for their development of global citizenship.
Tracy: Thank you for the insights. Do you have any suggestions for science educators or educators in general?
Janet: Reflecting on my past ten years of teaching, I firmly believe that a holistic approach that involves outcomes-based, problem-based, and project-based learning is crucial for science education. I hope to bring my students closer to the grand challenges and real-world issues so that they could make sense of what they learn in class and envision how they can contribute to the local and global society.
- Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J., & Boss S. (2015). Setting the standard for project based learning. The Buck Institute of Education. ASCD, Alexandria, VA USA.