Since 2009, a group of undergraduate students from an Innovation Class of South China University of Technology (SCUT) has captured attention of the academy by publishing academic papers on premier international journals, including Nature, Science and Cell.
Over the past few years, debates have being created on the plausibility of this new training mode, proposing the question if the youngsters are risking being short-changed by engaging in specific scientific research too early at their age, even if, to quote Nature editorial’s words, “they are smart, confident and, for their age, tremendously experienced.”
The answer remains for educators around the world to explore, but SCUT has been managing its own way to elaborate a positive answer by establishing a more reasonable and reliable mechanism of the Innovation Classes, while these programs keep producing extraordinary young talents in various fields during recent years.
Today, there are over 1,000 “Innovation Class students” studying in the campus of SCUT, who are selected to participate in 31 programs. The classes are customized to different categories regarding different types of students and program orientations. These include two Classes of Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies in Frontier Sciences, nine Advanced Practical Classes, ten Academic Research Classes, two Integrated Talents Classes, seven Internationalized Talents Classes, and one Entrepreneur Class.
All of the students are undergraduates, with some of them taking Integrated Undergraduate/Graduate Programs.
Half of Wu’s classmates have been granted the qualification to enroll in graduate programs inside the country without the need to take the Chinese National Postgraduate Entrance Examination. She chose a different path, not a convenient one, but a more challengeable one.
“I appreciate what I learned in my class and I intend to extend the ability abroad. After finishing the program in Australia, I prepare to further my study overseas,” she maps her future as this.
The fresh journey started from this August. Apart from the intensive study schedule in the new university, she is also expected to face various culture shocks and potential discomfort with the new environment, such as different customs, diet, climate, even transportation methods.
“The exchange program requires no class to take. I am supposed to participate in some actual programs, instructed by my supervisor,” she says. “I am ready to step out of the current convenience, and to experience new patterns of life in Australia. This is what my classmates and I learned from the Excellence Class: to go outside to see the world, and to grab the chance without fearing difficulties.”
A Quiet Revolution
Among all the innovation classes, the SCUT-BGI Genome Science Innovation Class is often considered like Venus in the dawn sky. By this October, its students have published, as first authors or co-authors, 67 academic papers on premier international academic journals.
The media calls it “a quiet revolution”, “a miracle of the Chinese higher education”. However, the students have their own thoughts on what they are engaging with.
The editorial published on Nature raised the media’s attention.
Jin Xin, one of the earliest graduates of the Genome Science Innovation Class, shares his understanding on what type of candidate fit the requirement of the Innovation Classes:
“We do not ask what background someone has. If you are a person rigidly adhere to routines and procedures, you do not belong here. If you consider yourself flexible, creative and liable to see changes, then you are quite well accepted.”
“Here scientific research does not seal itself inside an ivory tower,” he adds. “It provides us with a more extensive platform to communicate, to learn from the best and the most experienced research staff.”
Before joining Jin’s class by coincidence, Liu Shipping was a physics student without much knowledge of biology. He read Erwin Schrodinger’s What Is Life just ahead of the recruitment talk of the Innovation Class, which then inspired him to sign up for the cohort of genome science.
“When we choose to enter an unfamiliar field, difficulties and setbacks come, which look like negative factors, but also momentum driving us to learn harder,” he says.
Similar to Liu, his classmate Xie Yinlong used to be a student in software before he chose to study genome science in the Innovation Class. He makes the point that the Innovation Class is not an insurance policy for success:
“The university gives you a push. Then it is on your own efforts.”
A Beautiful Undertaking
The youngsters may have different backgrounds before they are united into one class, but they do share and enjoy one common mind: scientific research is a beautiful undertaking.
The title of “Innovation Class student” is probably a shimmering aura for some others to admire, except that it is subject to a college life with particularly tight schedules and multiple tough challenges. “To compete for fun” is the exact words to describe the atmosphere in these classes. No one wants to be behind.
In 2010, Wang Haiyan became an Innovation Class student studying material science.
“I was lucky enough to have my classmates,” years later, she says. “You could always find them in the library or any of the study rooms inside the campus. My classmates provided me with a motivation that encouraged me to step forward with no hesitation allowed.”
Students are working in laboratories.
Beyond the student’s passion for science, the university has set up a series of policies customized for their study. Everyone is granted to choose a supervisor in the second year of university. They then start to learn and work in laboratories under their supervisors’ instructions.
As the tutor for the first enrollment of the Genome Science Innovation Class, Du Hongli used to assist her school and the university in drafting training schemes. She explained that the schemes were to provide all the insurances for the students’ study condition. She and her colleagues were also supposed to ensure extremely close coordination between the faculty and the students.
“When the students are in the middle of scientific research, they do not need to worry about anything except the science itself,” she adds.
In the case of Wang Haiyan, she succeeded in applying for a research program specialized for undergraduate students, which was supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities. Taking this program, the second year of university was special for her, ending with an academic paper published on a SCI journal, which was completed by her team.
Confidence grows when knowledge and skills are improved. Entering the last year of college life, her talents in material science has been recognized by the academy in multiple events, which include winning the Outstanding Prize in National Competition for New Material Innovation and Design, as well as winning the First Prize in Material Innovation and Design Competition held by Guangdong province.
After four years of training in the Innovation Class, she is now a second-year PhD candidate at SCUT School of Materials Science and Engineering. Her dream of taking science as a way of life and an undertaking starts from the Innovation Class, whereas it never ends there.
An Established Pattern
Reviewing the history of the university, the exploration on new methods of training talents for advanced innovative abilities can be traced back to 30 years ago, when in 1985, a Joint Class in electronic sciences, which was a predecessor of today’s Innovation Classes, was created.
The purpose of the program was to train a small group of selected students for establishing a much more solid and profound knowledge system, distinguished creative thinking abilities and international insights. These goals were to be realized by high-level orientations, extensive course settings and practices in all ways.
The pattern has been continuously being examined and improved during the last three decades. Today, compared with ordinary undergraduate programs, an enhanced mode called “3+1+X” is applied in the Innovation Classes integrated with undergraduate/graduate schemes.
“3+1” means the students need to finish most of their undergraduate study within the first three years, before they study graduate courses in advance during the fourth year. They then enter the period of X, which is an actual graduate program, with master’s degree taking X as 2, and PhD degree taking X as 4.
Besides, different types of classes are categorized for different orientations. Taking Advanced Practical Classes for instance, most of the students major in engineering, thus the goal of their training scheme is to cultivate globally recognized leading research engineers. The goal is clearly oriented by requiring the graduates to acquire key frontier technologies related to their specialties, to fully understand the reality of China, and then to be able to propose and solve practical issues for enterprises.
For Internationalized Talents Classes, which is another important type of the Innovation Classes, the mode is set to “2+2” Joint Training. Students are supposed to study both in SCUT and in a partner university outside mainland China. They will be awarded dual bachelor’s degree if they fulfill the degree requirements of the two universities.
At ARUP, a worldwide design and engineering consulting company, an engineer is giving an on-site lecture to the students. Over the years, SCUT has developed close coordination with leading enterprises to co-train students for practical abilities.
SCUT President Wang Yingjun considers the Innovation Classes as a mirror of the methodology the university applies in educating all the students. She argues that the traditional style of “lecturers teach and students learn” is not the highway to cultivate outstanding graduates. They cannot be simply created in classes and lectures, or only within the circle of university campus. They need more soil than a campus can give them.
To practice this idea, over the past few years, the university has been managing to “establish laboratories outside the campus”, as well as to “run lectures outside the nation”.
In addition, as one of the major scientific research bases in South China, SCUT owns 13 affiliated laboratories and research institutions at national level and 91 at provincial or ministry level, which are all open to students. The university board believes that academic research should have full interaction with teaching process, not only ideologically, but also in sharing hardware and other resources.
A Special Edition from Eyes of SCUT Journalists, Vol. 56
English version rewritten and edited by Xu Peimu