Fulbright Faculty Members share how Scientific Inquiry is a vital part of the university’s Core Curriculum for undergraduate students.
Here in Vietnam, there is no lack of public appreciation for science. Luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Galileo Galilei, among others, have long entered the country’s vernacular as names associated with genius. Whereas books by Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan are revered as classics, the steady stream of articles about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk on mainstream media betrays zealous admiration for their paths to success, for stories so fascinating they might have reached mythical proportions in the popular psyche. Not to mention, Vietnam’s overwhelming pride for Professor Ngo Bao Chau, the first Vietnamese national to have received the Fields Medal in 2010.
And yet, the country’s young people are less inclined to pursue a career in science. According to statistics from the Ministry of Education and Training, in 2021, natural and life sciences received the fewest applications during Vietnam’s annual entrance exam for higher education. Although, information technology and computer science, engineering and technology still enjoyed reasonable interest as among the most popular majors for Vietnamese students; other popular majors include Defense and Security, Journalism and Information, Hospitality, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Business and Management.
“A majority of students are not interested in [the academic study of] science, some of them are excited to learn, but many are intimidated,” says Dr. Phan Vu Xuan Hung, Fulbright Faculty Member in Integrated Sciences, and one of the lecturers of the course Scientific Inquiry at Fulbright University Vietnam. That observation is echoed by his fellow faculty, Dr. KinHo Chan: “The main challenges inherent in the [Scientific Inquiry] course are two-fold. The first is motivational, which primarily stems from discouraging early life experiences with science education. The second is a bimodal distribution of students with vastly different interest levels and preparedness.”
Nonetheless, being part of the five courses that comprise Fulbright’s core curriculum as foundational prerequisites before undergraduates can declare their major, Scientific Inquiry – alongside Global Humanities and Social Change, Modern Vietnamese Culture and Society, Design and Systems Thinking, and Quantitative Reasoning for a Digital Age – is expressive of the liberal arts tradition faithfully observed and nurtured at Fulbright.
Scientific Inquiry as a fundamental life skill
As Vietnam’s first liberal art university, Fulbright University Vietnam recognizes the fact that an interdisciplinary study across fields of social and natural sciences is essential to students’ self-actualization. It’s about inspiring them with new ways of thinking, and how one looks at the world. The Scientific Inquiry course, thus, comes into play for its potentialities to cultivate in our young people “logical, evidence-based reasoning”, “objectiveness and open-mindedness”, according to Dr. Nguyen Thi Trang, Fulbright Faculty Member in Integrated Sciences. She elaborates: “These are crucial skills for everyone, not just in academia or any other workplace, but in everyday life, especially in today’s world of fake news, clickbait, and algorithm-powered confirmation bias.”
“Scientific knowledge and skills are not only necessary for survival, but they play key roles in the extent to which we are successful in life,” says Dr. KinHo Chan. “At Fulbright, we want our graduates to do much better than merely survive. This is why we want to equip them with these ideas and skill sets. Regardless of career path, the abilities to generate key questions, make testable predictions, collect data, make inferences, and critically evaluate information will be crucial for success.”
Therefore, Scientific Inquiry is a gateway for Fulbright students to rediscover the beauty, and true purpose of science under new light. Whereas the austere manner in which natural science subjects are often taught in high school can unnerve students of their ability to comprehend, apply, or succeed in science, to the point of stigmatize it as esoteric and abstruse, Scientific Inquiry is designed as an open book that invites students on a journey of enlightened discoveries which have served humanity since the dawn of civilization to the present day.
“The course gives you an eye-opening exposure to how scientific knowledge has been generated in the last 500 years or so. Without science, there wouldn’t be technology for us to enjoy using on a daily basis,” says Dr. Phan Vu Xuan Hung. “No computer, no phone, no car, no electricity. Being aware of and appreciating the work and methodology of scientists behind all the advanced technologies is an important part of being a whole citizen.”
“The boundaries between natural and social sciences are artificial”
On top of a walkthrough of the history of science and its philosophy, Scientific Inquiry also provides Fulbright students with foundational components of research methods that will prove to be useful for other courses at the university, or should students wish to pursue a career in academia, as well as other future career prospects. From critical review of a scientific article to a fully-fleshed out research proposal and report, Fulbright students are encouraged to come up with hands-on projects that tap into their personal interests.
“I assured students from the very beginning that they don’t have to have a strong foundation in natural science. The course is more about scientific thinking than the specific disciplines of natural sciences,” says Dr. Nguyen Thi Trang. “Since for me, scientific methods are the key to this course, I am flexible about the research areas students choose for their projects, as long as they can demonstrate understanding and application of the method.”
According to Dr. KinHo Chan, while the Integrated Sciences faculty members have their own fields of interests, from geology, biology, chemistry, physics to neuroscience, the overarching aim of Scientific Inquiry is to “challenge students not only to understand the world from a scientific perspective, but also to understand how our scientific perspective shapes and is shaped by the world around us.”
He also stresses: “I don’t believe natural giftedness plays an important role in learning. It is a misconception that we try to address early on in the course, with the help of scientific evidence. In my opinion, the boundaries between natural and social sciences are artificial. I try to address these challenges by partnering with students to create projects that appeal to their interests and allow them to engage with the materials at their own pace and depth. The goal is to provide different kinds of opportunities for all students to explore the same set of main themes and cultivate the same set of skills.”
Science as relatable and relevant
Although each faculty member of Fulbright’s Integrated Sciences has developed their respective syllabus for Scientific Inquiry, there runs a thread of relatable and relevant issues of discussion for students such as environmental sustainability, climate change, data privacy, disease prevention, economic and educational inequality, even those of arts and history.
Particularly, in Dr. Phan Vu Xuan Hung’s Scientific Inquiry class, students’ interests are extended to inquiry about how to make biodegradable containers from rice husk, assessing the quality of rainwater collected from their Fulbright dorm and campus, or the degree of bacterial contamination on everyday objects such as mobile phones.
“We often address current real-world events. For example, a lot of Covid-19-related research was discussed in my class,” says Dr. Nguyen Thi Trang. “We also went through the Human Genome Project within the same week when the largest Vietnamese genome database was completed [in December 2021].” By broaching the subject with familiar topics and real-life situations, she believes the course can transform students’ attitude from trepidation to actual enjoyment when it comes to science.
One such example is Hoang Thu Hang, Fulbright undergraduate, Class of 2024. “I used to think science subjects were not my forte. But this course has given me so much confidence, by dispelling this fear, or burden, that I’d carried before,” she says. “I fell in love with reading about the fascinating history and philosophy of science, not to mention Ms. Trang’s guidance, and her very straightforward examples to help us discuss and understand things better in class. For my research proposal, she encouraged me with my topic about teenage pregnancy, which is not a natural science project at all. For the first time, I saw in myself the desire to learn science, the fun of learning science, and the confidence in my own ability to persevere, and be patient, with trying to figure out solutions to any problem I don’t have an answer to before, here onwards.”