Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Setting up shop on Temple Street

 The Temple Street Night Market is a big tourist attraction.  Every day, starting around 3 PM, vendor set up their stalls.  They pull out their carts from storage, assemble the stalls, and lay out their ware.  Some time in the darkest hours at night, they disassemble the stalls, and store away their goods.  Hours later, in mid-afternoon, they start again.   It is a hard way to make a living.  

There are actually two sections of the Night Market.  The goods sold at the section south of Kansu Street tend to be more expensive.  The stalls are more elaborate.  The vendors also tend to be younger.

In the section north of Kansu Street, the good tend to be cheaper.  The stalls are less elaborate - some are no more than just simple tables.  The vendors also tend to be older.  Even the Night Market is stratified.

Here are some photos of the vendors setting up their stalls on Temple Street on a recent Sunday afternoon.  Can you tell whether they are in the north section? or the south section?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A little kindness - Service-Learning at Special School

On Saturday, we took 50 of our students to the Hong Chi Pinehill Special School in Taipo to organize a carnival for the children there.  We set up 10 game booths, guided the children to play the games, and gave them small gifts as rewards.  The service went smoothly and we all enjoyed it.

Pulling it off was far from easy.  10+ of the children were mildly challenged (handicapped).  They developed a little slower than other children, hence behaved a little differently.  We need to be patient with them.  Other than that it wasn’t too difficult.

There were also 30+ who were severely challenged. Many could not speak.  Some could not see.  Most had to sit in special wheelchairs.  Many have very little control of their limbs and the rest of their body.  Most of our students had never encountered these situations before.  It was a huge challenge for them to interact with them, and to figure out how to help them play the games. 

Organizing the carnival is actually a project of two of our credit-bearing subjects on Service Learning.  We had spent quite a bit of time to prepare our students before taking them to Hong Chi.  We had explained to them what these children were like, showed them photographs, had them sit in wheelchairs to try to play those games, and discussed with them how to handle some of the challenges.  To make sure everyone knew what they were expected to do, we assigned each and everyone a task - whether it was manning a specific booth, or helping a specific child.  Because we had a lot of manpower, we could afford to assign one student to attend to each of the children.

Even then, they were tense and uneasy at the beginning.  Many times we had to demonstrate to them how to help the children clap to the music, to talk to the children even when there was no response, to try to get them to smile, to help them to grab and throw the balls, ...   To their credit, our students caught on quickly.  Soon everyone was having fun - the children, our students, our teaching assistants, the professors, the Hong Chi staff.

At the debriefing afterwards, it was gratifying to hear from our students: “it felt great when she smiled at me even though she could not talk”, “I was nervous in the beginning but I gradually overcame it”, “I didn’t know what to do but you showed me how to interact with him”, “I realized I had to pay more attention to her than I normally do to my friends”, “I feel I need to look at things from his view point”, ...

We had put in a lot of hard work to prepare for this event.  In the end the effort paid off.  Our students broke through their comfort zone and demonstrated they were up to the challenge. But this is just the beginning.  This carnival is part of the preparation for the service trip to Cambodia in May, when we will face a bigger challenge.  I hope we are up to that one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

(Poor) Study Habit and Remedy

Many of our students do not realize their full potential because of a lack of discipline and poor study habits.  Practically none prepare for a class by reading the material that will be discussed.  Few, if any, read the assigned reading after class.  Most do not start working on an assignment or project until a few days before the due date.  Most wait until classes are finished before starting to cram for the examination.  As a result, they often have to work through the evening without sleeping to finish an assignment.  They cram for an examination just before the examination, and promptly forget everything right after the examination.  There is very little real understanding and retention of the material. 

Neuroscience research has discovered that the best way to remember something is to review the material a short period, e.g., one or two days, after it was first learned.  This way the short term memory is refreshed, instead of fading away.  After a number of refreshments, the short term memory becomes long term memory, and will not fade away easily.  But this is exactly what many of our students are not doing. 

Humans are beings of habit.  A habit, including the way we study, is very hard to change once it is formed.  Sometimes, live changing events force us to learn some new habits.  It is precisely at these moments when we are most open and flexible.   Entering university is such an event. 

Our university, like most other universities, has not really taken the opportunity to help our students acquire good study habits.  In fact, we are practically facilitating them to acquire bad study habits.  In the first weeks of the first semester, we typically make it easy for the incoming students.  We cancel some classes, do not give them a lot of assignments, give them a long time to finish an assignment, and do not give them tough projects until later in the semester - because we want to give the students plenty of time to adapt to the new environment, to attend orientations, to join clubs and societies, and to make new friends.  We make the whole first semester, or even the whole first year, relatively easy.   Then we make it tougher in the second year, and the third, and so on.   This may work for students who are self-disciplined and have already developed good study habits.  They are prepared to take advantage of the newly-available freedom to explore, to experiment, and are still able to catch up with the studies. 

Unfortunately, this does not work for those who are forming their own habits.  The message they are getting is that they can take it easy with their studies in the beginning of the term, and that they can take their time to catch up later in the term.  Starting in the second semester, their (bad) habits are already set, and it is very difficult for them to change, even if they want to.  Most of them do not. 

Hence, my modest proposal: Starting from the first semester in the first year, we have to make it clear to the students they are expected to read, review, and do their assignments.  We do need to give them time to adapt.  Hence the assignments and tests should be low-risk, not too difficult and carrying relatively light weight.  But the students have to get used to getting started with their studies early in the term, review often, and work consistently throughout the term. 

They will realize that good study habits work wonders for them. It will make life much easier for their teachers.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Robotics Competition

Hundreds of primary and secondary school students came to our campus today to participate in a robotics competition based on the LEGO Mindstorm kit.  We have been organizing this competition for many years now and it has always been a lot of fun, although it has also been a lot of work.  It is good to see so many kids being so keen on something involving mechanics, engineering, and programming.  A primary 4 boy that I talked to said he liked robots and mathematics, even though he could not quite explain why.  I hope he retains his enthusiasm. 

Fewer Hong Kong students nowadays are so keen to study science and engineering in university.  The reasons may vary.  But some seem to be influenced by the perception that “technical” subjects such as mathematics, science and engineering are difficult, that “softer” subjects such as management are somehow easier, and that there are fewer jobs available in science and engineering.  In the long run, it cannot be good for Hong Kong. 

A couple of years ago I happened to be in Atlanta in Georgia, USA, when they held a national robot competition for secondary schools students.  It was actually 3 competitions of robots at differing sizes rolled into 1.  The one at the smallest size was the one based on LEGO Mindstorm - the robots were no more than 1 foot in size, made of plastic, weightedno more than a couple of pounds, and fell apart easily.  The largest robots were about 4 feet long, with 6 big wheels, made of metal, probably weighted close to a hundred pounds, and practically indestructible.  There were thousands of students, teachers, and parents in the gigantic stadium.  The competitions last for several days, with a festive atmosphere.  The crowd seemed to have even taken over a sizable part of the city, with restaurants advertising especially towards them. 

The size of the competition and the obvious enthusiasm were indicative of the strength of science and engineering in the American education system.  And it goes a long way in explaining why the Americans keep coming up with the most innovative technologies and products.  By admitting defeat in science and engineering, we are condemning ourselves to merely providing service to the innovators and creators of real value. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

PolyU Serves

On 9 February, our university launched the PolyU Serves Community Service campaign.  Most importantly, the university has decided to make Service Learning a credit-bearing activity, and compulsory for all undergraduates starting with the cohort of 2012-13.  We have already developed a number of Service Learning subjects.  Two have been piloted (trial run), 8 more will be piloted this year, and more will be coming. 

In fact, I taught the first pilot, Service Learning and Civic Engagement in the Information Age, in the summer of 2011, together with 2 other colleagues, G and V.  V took 10 students to Xinjiang. G and I took 30 students to Cambodia - much of which had already posted here earlier.  Please click on the label “Cambodia” or “Service Learning” for earlier posts.

I have realized that when students engage in serious and meaningful community service, they learn a lot from the experience.   For years, I have been advocating creating credit-bearing academic subjects on service learning in our university - so that students can be taught properly, supervised properly, and their efforts be recognized properly. 

Now my dreams have been realized beyond my imagination.  Not only Service Learning can be credit-bearing, it is compulsory for all students.  The university feel that social engagement is a critical element of personal development.  In fact, it is so important that all students should benefit from it, and not just those who want to do it.

The challenge ahead is huge.  How do you arrange for 3,000 students to engage in 40 hours of meaningful community service every year?  Few, if any, universities have taken such a bold step before.  Yet it is also an exciting time.  We dream that one day, our students will be known by their social engagement.  It is my mission. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jeremy Lin - 17

Type “jeremy” on Google and the first search term the Google suggests is “jeremy lin”.  In fact, you just need to type “j”, and Google suggests “jeremy lin harvard” and “jeremy lin nba”. That said it all. 

Jeremy Lin is a sensation.  He is a basketball player who plays for the New York Knicks in the NBA.  He was an unknown.  Then in the past week, he scared 25 points, 28 points, 23 points in successive wins.  In the last game on Friday, he scored 38 points in a win over the LA Lakers led by Kobe Bryant. 

He graduated from Harvard.  He is an Asian American born in the USA to immigrants from Taiwan.  And he is a Christian.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Just one more:  He wears the number 17, the same number that I wore playing soccer in the intra-mural league in our university.  Our team won the intra-mural championship twice in a row.  I can’t play basketball, but I wish him well. 

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

What are our universities doing?

Shouldn’t a university’s business be education?  Shouldn’t education be about teaching our young people not just knowledge but wisdom?  Shouldn’t a wise person be reasonable, independent, moral, and responsible? 

Then why are some of our universities be so bent on pleasing the rich and powerful?   Exalting politicians above academics?  Honouring the rich above their professors, students, and alumni?  Selling suspect research to curry favour from those expected to ascend in power? 

How can we expect our students to be honest, independent, just and compassionate, when their professors themselves are not honest, not independent, not just and not compassionate?  

On the one hand, we tell our students, “The purpose of studying is not to gain high marks.”  On the other hand, we show them with our actions that we treasure precisely high marks - in the form of funding, ranking, prestige and connections. 

What are we?  Hypocrites?

[Disclaimer:  I do not imply that all universities and all professors are like that.  Some are actually behaving quite honourably, standing up for truth and accepting responsibility for their actions, in the face of severe political pressure.  For example, Prof. Chung, and Prof. Tsui.]

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Admirable Views and Acts from the Marathon

These guys really deserve our admiration.  Firstly, of course, the vision-impaired runner, for having the stamina to run the grueling full-marathon, and for having the courage to tackle the challenge with the odds stacked against you.  And even more so, for the guides.  It was difficult enough to run the marathon by yourself.  But you have to take on the added challenge of guiding the impaired runner, and avoiding the other runners.  I salute you all.

And then this.  At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, when I saw it from the back.  Then someone exclaimed, “Look at that rhinoceros!”   I ran ahead a bit.  Lo and behold, there it was, with head and horns and all.   It was quite a challenge to take these photos.  Many times I was blocked by other runners and photographers - like me. 

The rhino was advertising for a web site www.savetherhino.org.   The young man inside must be a really good runner, to run the full marathon in such a heavy suit.  Another admirable one.

On the Tsing-Ma Bridge, I realized I could see the Noah’s Ark below - a great view. 

After the Tsing-Ma Bridge, I didn’t take many photos - I was focused on just surviving.  I was helped along the way by the many cheerleaders, particularly those from our university, the PolyU.  Thank you all.  At one point, in Wanchai, a group waving HKU flags was chanting “Hong Kong U, Hong Kong U!”  When one of their girls spotted me, however, she took pity on this poor old guy who was obviously struggling, and started chanting, “Po-ly-U, Po-ly-U!”  I was moved by this bit of chivalry, and waved at her.  Thank you, young lady.

In the end, I did survive the full marathon, with a time of roughly 4 hours and 53 minutes, an improvement of 3 minutes over last year, and my best time so far.  My ankles are swollen, and I can barely walk, but I did survive.  Thank you, my family and friends, for your prayers.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The student competition industry

A few days ago in Tuen Mun some parents fought among themselves during a student competition.  The fact that parents fought among themselves was unusual.  But the background story was even more fascinating.

The competition was said to be a world class youth competition of music, dancing, instruments and art.
It was said to be co-hosted by organizations from Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia.  It seemed to be an “international” competition - that was designed specifically for mainland children.  I found that the competition promoted itself in many mainland cities.  But apparently not in Hong Kong, even though it was held in Hong Kong and was supposed to be "international" and very prestigious.

Young competitors and their families from mainland China paid thousands of RMB to join a 6-day tour to Hong Kong, which included a one-day competition.  Since this is an “international” competition, it is a valuable addition to the child’s profile, for application to prestigious schools.

In the mean time, the tour companies and the competition organizers made tons of money.  I won’t be surprised that they are owned by the same persons.

If the younger generation is growing up materialistic, self-serving and under-handed, could it be because their parents, the schools, and the people all around them are behaving in exactly this way?