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Jianguo High School

Tempering Science with the Human Spirit


Tempering Science with the Human Spirit

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

Taiwan's oldest public high school also scores the greatest scientific accomplishments. Yet it is dedication to the liberal arts and commitment to service that give the students a balanced introduction to their world.

Tempering Science with the Human Spirit

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 460 )

Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School boasts an impressive Hall of Fame. Inside the school's century-old"Red Building,"with its walls of brick and arched windows of white stone, bulletin boards on either side of the foyer prominently display the names of an exceptional group of students.

Over the past 18 years, students at the all-boys school have won 171 medals at International Science Olympiads and 79 at science contests in the Asia-Pacific region, making an average of at least 10 medals per school year.

Not surprisingly, many people think that Jianguo students must be mostly bookish nerds. Principal Tsai Ping-kun strenuously objects to such stereotyping. Tsai, who became the school's first-ever elected principal two years ago after heading National Taichung First Senior High School for eight years, patiently pleads his students' case. Jianguo students are, of course, very much into science, which is why two thirds of the school's students choose to enroll in Track Two or Track Three studies, which are heavy on math and experimental sciences. But, Tsai insists, they are not science geeks who only feel comfortable in the presence of inanimate scientific instruments.

The tenor of science education at Jianguo High School is realizing an intense dialogue between science and society.

Science Needs Humanity

Fifteen years ago Huang Chun-mu returned to his alma mater as a history teacher, hoping to inject a healthy dose of the humanities into the school's science-oriented curriculum. Huang recalls that during his school days the widespread attitude was that only dummies pick Track One studies, which emphasize languages, social sciences and the liberal arts.

When starting to teach at Jianguo High School, Huang discovered that attitudes had not changed much since. "At Jianguo High School it takes a lot of courage to major in the humanities and social sciences," Huang points out. But Huang did not give up so easily. He felt that the hard sciences needed a certain input from the social sciences. So he joined with the school's other liberal arts teachers to found a gifted program in the humanities and social sciences, in a bid to balance the school's overemphasis on the natural sciences and create a more prominent role for the humanities. In all of Taiwan there are only six senior high schools with gifted programs in the humanities and social sciences, including Jianguo, which is the only boys' school.

"The spirit behind the scientific revolution of the 17th century was humanism," notes Huang, who won an excellent teacher award from the Taipei City Government this year. Huang believes that scientific research should be centered on human beings. If there is an overemphasis on hard science at the expense of the humanities, then dialogue between the two sides becomes impossible, and Taiwan will have no outstanding scientific achievements, he reasons.

In order to broaden the horizons of Jianguo science majors, Huang designed an elective course, "Technology and Society," which is unrelated to the university entrance exam. Seventeen math- and science-track students have chosen this course. Huang has planned a string of interdisciplinary lectures on such issues as cloning, stem cells, and human-machine interaction, with three two-hour sessions for each topic. Before each lecture the students are required to finish extra reading assignments based on a list of books suggested by Huang.

In class Huang keeps bombarding the students with questions, engaging them in discussions from various angles. One time they had a discussion about the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin. While the science-track students discussed the effectiveness of penicillin from the perspective of biological mechanisms, the social science-track students pointed out that the discovery of penicillin was crucial for the victory of the Allied Forces in World War II. "If science topics are discussed at different levels, they become more enriching," notes Huang.

After Typhoon Morakot devastated southern Taiwan last year, Huang asked his students how post-disaster reconstruction work should be coordinated with the typhoon victims. The science-track students looked at the situation from the perspective of time- and cost-conscious engineers. They felt that there is no need to communicate with the victims when villages need to be relocated, arguing that the sooner the projects are completed the better. Following a heated discussion with students from the social science-track, the science-track students gradually agreed that in addition to technical aspects, the projects also need to take into account interaction between man and environment. "They slowly began to use systematic assessment instead of looking at the problem solely from a technological standpoint," Huang explains.

At Jianguo High School it's not just the liberal arts teachers who attach importance to instilling humanist values in the science-track students; the science teachers share this belief too.

Science Students with Literary Flair

Math teacher Lin Hsin-an, who has served three times as homeroom teacher for the school's gifted math and science class, believes that the best science education prepares students to become members of society equally cultivated in the sciences and the humanities. Lin encourages students in the gifted math and science class to hear lectures on many different subjects, and grants them official leave for special projects, meetings or library research. He even takes them on tours to places of literary significance, such as famous authors' residences, hoping that the students develop a taste for reading and cultivate a wide range of skills. Lin's students are not reclusive bookworms, but pursue a variety of hobbies. Some can write fiction. Some can play the piano, or paint, or cook. Some are also hardcore players in the school's bridge club.

On top of spicing up the science curriculum with a good dose of liberal arts, Jianguo science education also stresses hands-on learning.

When climbing the dimly lit staircase of the Red Building, visitors are greeted by an unpleasant odor from the school toilets. Biology teacher Tsui-hua Liu, sporting straight long hair, is eager to apologize for the discomfort caused.

But, as she explains, given the age of this historic site, it can't be helped that its facilities are not necessarily all up to modern standards. Next door to the toilets is the laboratory. Inside, at around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, several students are bent over workbenches, intently concentrating on specimens under their microscopes.

The lab is reserved exclusively for the students. As long as they register, they can conduct any experiment here that they can devise. Liu, who has helped many students prepare for international science contests, reveals that the rather primitive laboratory becomes crowded with students at noon every day. And even Jianguo graduates, who are now studying at university, like to drop in during their spare time to check out the ongoing research projects.

Perhaps Jianguo High School does not have the most advanced lab equipment, but it has been quite inventive when it comes to tapping the educational resources of much better equipped institutions. The school borrows equipment and lab facilities from both the Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top academic research institution, and highly ranked National Taiwan University. Outstanding students are also dispatched to the two institutions to conduct laboratory research under professors there.

Jianguo students can also count on a highly dedicated faculty. Liu, for instance, is not only writing teaching materials or searching for background information, but also helps students complete special projects. Not a minute goes by when she is not thinking about her students' research topics, she says.

"Jianguo science teachers are very busy responding to their students' many demands," observes Huang. Yet that is just Jianguo tradition. The school's students are high achievers extremely capable of making their own study plans, so it should not come as a surprise that teachers are under great pressure to keep pace. Since most experiments take quite some time, even laboratory personnel are often forced to work on weekends and holidays.

Taking Advantage

Jianguo High School has nine after-school science clubs, and two thirds of all first-year students have joined at least one of them. Wang Szu-Po, a Jianguo star graduate who presently studies at the Department of Electrical Engineering of National Taiwan University, joined the school's informatics club in tenth grade. Starting from scratch Wang learned programming and got a real knack for information science. In his second year of senior high school, Wang represented Taiwan in international science competitions. All in all Wang won three consecutive gold medals at different International Science Olympiads, in math (2008), informatics (2009) and physics (2010).

Wang says he deeply appreciated the school's ability to draw on an abundance of resources, both internal and external. He was also able to rely on his fellow students for valuable advice and support. Wang recalls that he asked first-year student Chen Yu-an, a physics whiz and gold medalist in the International Junior Science Olympiad, for advice when he prepared for the International Physics Olympiad in his last year of senior high school. On the other hand, Wang taught fellow students math and discussed with his classmates what they had learned. Wang feels that money alone won't be able to build such a "talent mine" and that it will therefore be difficult for other schools to follow the Jianguo model.

Most Jianguo boys are far away from burying their heads in books or locking themselves inside the laboratory the whole day. They tackle community service with the same eagerness and curiosity that they have for science. More than four years ago students from the gifted social sciences class began to go to Hsinyi Township in Nantou County to help out in the aboriginal villages there. One quarter of the spaces are reserved for science-track students who teach science to the village kids. The students take turns teaching during the summer and winter breaks as well as on weekends. "Registration is always so enthusiastic that we need to ask some students to withdraw their applications every year," Huang, who is in charge of the community service program, notes with a tinge of regret.

Last year, the science-track students decided to do their community service at Pingsi Elementary School in Taipei County. Every Friday afternoon they get official leave to help the elementary students with their homework. They create their own teaching props and tutor the kids in reading popular science books.

New wine in an old bottle is good for surprises. Housed in the venerable Red Building, Taiwan's oldest high school spawns the island's most vibrant science talent today.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz