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.”
It is a strategic decision that a “engineering-oriented” subject has been chosen as one of the core courses at Fulbright University Vietnam. Design and Systems Thinking’s ultimate goal is not to train students specialized in technology, but to inspire the young generation to empathize with others, think creatively, understand the process and come up with solutions to tackle complex and interdisciplinary challenges of the impatient future.
Design and Systems Thinking evolved from the “Creating and Making” course which was introduced in the co-design year. Initially, it mainly focused on design theories and technical practices. Since the 2020-2021 academic year, the course has undertaken a lot of adjustments in curriculum and its name also changed to Design and Systems Thinking. According to Dr. Trương Trung Kiên, Chair of Engineering at Fulbright, this course was inspired by the academic model of Olin College of Engineering: “Students not only learn technical skills, but they also acquire broader knowledge. They must have entrepreneurial mindsets to understand the needs of users and make impacts on society.”
The course’s name clearly states two modules taught in the course: design thinking focusing on human-centered needs analysis & problem identification, ideation, prototype making & testing; and systems thinking focusing on connections and interactions among components of a product and between the product and its working environment. At present, design thinking still takes up a greater proportion of the course content. Nevertheless, our two lecturers Dr. Nguyễn Hợp Minh and Dr. Trương Trung Kiên are putting more efforts to cultivate and apply systems thinking in lectures and term projects in upcoming semesters.
This course requires students to create and make physical engineering products in the Makerspace. As an essential component, the space offers a diverse selection of equipment ranging from handy tools such as hammers, saws, sewing machines,… to those for manufacturing purposes such as a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) cutting machine, 3-dimensional (3D) printers,….It enables students to turn design ideas into actual products. Managing this space since the early days of its establishment, Mr. Trần Thanh Thái, Associate Director of Design & Fabrication Operations at Makerspace, never loses his excitement: “Graduated from Bach Khoa University and spending years in manufacturing corporations, I used to work with many technicians. At Fulbright, the interesting thing is that I’ve been teaching technology to complete novices but dare to explore and experiment. Their fresh minds openly absorb everything”.
The “happy moments”
The interweaving and sequencing of theoretical and practical lessons, one of the distinctive features of this course, offers students opportunities to immediately apply knowledge in production. Given that, the curriculum is designed based on the process of the project’s implementation: learning the techniques, understanding the users, ideation, design & proposal pitching, prototyping, testing, and reporting. It is such a challenging yet exciting process since the difficulties lead the learners to wholesome happiness in the end. “I’m glad to be a companion of students on their quest to find those “happy moments”. For example, a group produced a hand-free trash bin which was operated using eye command. They stumbled over a lot of obstacles. They eventually overcame those difficulties, and found their “happy moment” and shared it with everyone, ” Dr. Trương Trung Kiên observed.
Coaching students even in the smallest details, Mr. Thái can’t hide his emotions when recalling his students’ failed experiences. “It’s compulsory to design before making it. Designing a practical model is not easy. I tend to ask them to begin with simple technical drawings, rectangles, for instance, then encourage them to improve on those basic shapes. It’s exhilarating.” There are some groups in which members are completely new to handy tools, let alone large machines. Mr. Thái patiently demonstrated different levels of efficiency of the equipment. In one tutorial, he sawed a wooden panel and “acted” as if it took a lot of effort, then switched to a knife to easily cut and break it into two pieces with his hands. His demonstration boosted students’ confidence to become more comfortable with those machines. “Once, a group proposed a design that required electric welding. Initially, they were afraid of heat and smoke. After I demonstrated the process to show them that it was simpler than they thought, they tried and gradually got used to it. They mastered the skill and were so proud of their products, which made me also very proud.”
Equal opportunities in education
The experience of “amateur” technicians is not only fascinating for the students themselves but it also inspires the faculty to bring engineering lessons to life and for everyone. “Today, anyone can produce videos and become a YouTuber, just like how anyone can design and make products in the Makerspace,” said Dr. Nguyễn Hợp Minh.
As an inclusive course, Design and Systems Thinking welcomes participation from people with disabilities. Trần Việt Hoàng, a visually-impaired student, was also a student in Dr. Nguyễn Hợp Minh’s class. Having concerns that technical lessons would make Hoàng’s learning experience difficult, Dr. Minh asked Hoàng in a respectful manner whether or not he needed help. Yet, every time, Hoàng confidently answered “no” because a computer application can help him “read” his lectures and his classmates were always there supporting him. “Disability is still with him, but with assistive technology, Hoàng is capable of doing what he wants. I support him with all of my respect since probably I cannot do what he can do,” Dr. Minh affirmed. Those supporting devices are the very products of human-centered design and systems thinking, those that the course tries to convey to the students.
To Đồng Thị Hải Yến, another visually impaired student in Dr. Trương Trung Kiên’s class, this Design and Systems Thinking course has special meanings – a sense of accomplishment and being recognized. “I don’t think I’m ever able to learn such technology-related courses. There would be no opportunity for people like me to practice with industrial machines,” she shared. During her first and second years of high school, due to her condition, Yen was “excused” from works that involved drawing and making in arts and technology classes. “I felt isolated and bored. When my classmates drew and discussed their art pieces, I wished I had joined them. Although I was bad at drawing, I still wanted to try, but even if I tried, no one would guide or evaluate my drawings,” Yến recollected. The enthusiasm and wholehearted support of Mr. Thái, Dr. Kiên, Makerspace’s student assistants and her classmates gave Yến such courage to take part in the learning process.
“Mr. Thái told me to come to the Makerspace every Tuesday. There, he would help me practice with the machines, from the simplest work to complicated ones. It might take me more time and my products didn’t look as good as others’, but at least I could do it when being given proper guidance. Once, my teammates asked me to try the wood-cutting machine, I actually tried it and it was really fun.”
According to Mr. Trần Thanh Thái, another feature that makes teaching technology at Fulbright special is gender equality. “Currently, it’s critical to build favorable conditions for women to participate in STEM. However, at Fulbright, we achieve it effortlessly. Over the years, as I observed, many female students are interested in technology. The first two student assistants of the Makerspace are also female.”
A sense of belonging and community
Although Design and Systems Thinking is still a new course, it has been attracting and nurturing a community interested in technology at Fulbright. “I know the word “community”, yet never see it from an insider’s point of view. The course started from scratch and has been through rounds of renovation. Yet, today, we have a fully-functioning Makerspace with a manager and nearly 20 assistants responsible for different duties. There are even projects that go beyond the limitation of the course, where teachers and students collaborate as partners,” Dr. Minh shared.
A sense of belonging is fostered through collaborations among students with diverse characteristics and strengths. On the teamwork spirit, Nguyễn Tuấn Minh (Class of 2024) from FulbrightTeeth, a team designing an automatic toothpaste dispensing device assisting children and visually-impaired people to get a sufficient amount of toothpaste for proper dental care, shared: “We never put pressure on each other and try to have fun together. It is important to pay attention to and care for each member of the team. When the group is too tense, we stop immediately, and open wheelofnames.com to randomly assign team members the rest of the workload.”
The Hearty Plant project initiated by students, faculty, and staff at Fulbright is also a product of the “community” that Dr. Nguyễn Hợp Minh mentioned. The project incorporates Internet of Things (IoT) technology and agriculture to develop a vertical garden model, which enables urban dwellers to produce their own safe and sustainable food. Prior to the implementation of this project, lecturers took students on a field trip to Tuấn Ngọc farm – a hydroponic model that grows plants originated from Da Lat City under the weather condition of Ho Chi Minh City.
The Design and Systems Thinking course does not test students with easy questions. It offers them an environment to seek human-centered challenges that they desire to solve. To sustain that educational environment, we need to build a community of like-minded, compassionate and creative people. Those are the values that Design and Systems Thinking pursues – a core course related to engineering that is enshrined in the vision and mission of the liberal education at Fulbright University Vietnam.
We are living in an era that highly values the power of big data and STEM, and we cannot counter-argue how significant these subjects matter to our daily life. Traits that are often linked to STEM such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, and pioneering are desirable and praised.
However, our world has evolved from a wealth of knowledge across disciplines to become what it is today and is still constantly changing. We do not know how long this era will last or how it will transform because, for example, just two decades ago, big data was still very much unheard of, and those said traits were once identified with philosophers, though they are always desirable.
It is inadequate to favor one subject over another at any point in our human development. It is even more important today to have a more interdisciplinary education to tackle the grand challenges the human race is facing because our problems are increasingly intertwined, and so are our lives. And only when we fully delve into ourselves – humanities, can we instill changes for a better future.
As a Vietnamese university that is inspired by the American liberal arts and engineering model, Fulbright University Vietnam understood the importance of interdisciplinary education. During the first and second years at Fulbright, students are required to complete five different core courses, which provide them with a multi-faceted knowledge of the world we are living in; Global Humanities and Social Change is one of these five core courses*.
The Concept of Change
Global Humanities and Social Change is designed to help students examine key moments in the global history of thought through the lens of textual analysis. The course looks at key texts in five core periods and epistemic traditions: (1) classical epistemologies and origin myths; (2) major transitions of the post-classical era; (3) Renaissance, Enlightenment, Revolution and transitions to modernity; (4) Modern Era; and (5) (Post) Colonialism.
By exploring through the texts, students are able to not only analyze and grapple with complex ideas, which influence social policy and shape perception in the contemporary world but also understand the evolution of change. “The goal of Global Humanities is to introduce students to historical changes concerning different people’s approaches to education, politics, ethics, and culture, and to consider how these historical changes have shaped our world today,” says Dr. Kevin Hart, the core coordinator for the course and a faculty member in Literature.
What makes the course even more enticing is that students are not boxed into just theoretical texts such as Plato’s The Republic or Rousseau’s The Social Contract but can re-evaluate famous literary pieces such as The One Thousand and One Nights to identify the similarities and differences of “change” across concepts and texts, time and places.
Course lecturers, depending on their background and perspective, have the flexibility to tailor reading materials to fit the subject matter. “The range of materials allows us to step outside our comfort zones … to tackle new subject matter and texts. … I may naturally lean towards providing my students with a more historical way to think about the texts we encounter, but it has been gratifying to engage with anthropology and literary analysis as well,” explains Dr. Andrew Bellisari, a faculty member in History and one of the main instructors of this course.
Ultimately, Global Humanities and Social Change hope to provide students a foundation to analyze how “change” has changed historically, how it will affect our lives in modern times, and how we should prepare for and cope with “change” in the future. With this foundation, students will be more equipped to respond to the greatest challenges of our times such as discrimination, inequality, radicalism, etc…
An Understanding of the World
Changes are inherent, yet not all changes are desirable. At Fulbright, we aspire to create the next generation of positive change-makers in Vietnam for a rapidly evolving world. And it is our responsibility to build an educational experience that can instill positive impacts so that our students can create a better world in the future. To achieve this, we first need to help students understand the global pasts and learn from all they offer.
“One of the aims of Global Humanities and Social Change is to de-exceptionalize the Vietnamese experience by showing our students how similar the experiences of very different people have been around the world and throughout time. Our students can build empathy with other cultures and see the shared human experience of change,” adds Dr. Bellisari.
Within the texts in this course, students can engage in the thinking processes practiced in different cultures and historical periods, and be exposed to various ways of thinking, analyzing, and questioning. The experiences gained from studying these texts may be qualitatively different, but they are all vital pieces of re-evaluation and self-reflection, which will help Fulbright students become better citizens of the world.
“This course helps me re-evaluate ideas which I thought were true, or ethical values that I unquestionably follow. It propels me to question why my society considers this is right and this is wrong, or whether these things hold absolute truth. It teaches me how to think critically about matters in life, equality in our society, and even my own set of ethical values,” shares Hoang Phuong Mai, a Class of 2024 student.
By comparing and contrasting historical and modern texts, students can find their answers to urgent epistemological and ethical problems for the present and future: how to empathize with other people beyond the physical territories, and how to cope with different intellectual, religious, social, and cultural points of views.
“Through different stories from different civilizations across places and time, I learn to be more open and become a more well-rounded person. I learn to care more than just my own life. I am eager to solve societal grand challenges such as feminism, systematic racism, the East-West divide, etc… I have never been more mature,” says Quach Thi Xuan Trang, a Class of 2023 student.
Setting up for Success
Besides knowledge, the Global Humanities and Social Change course also nurtures different habits of mind that allow students to mature into successful, productive citizens of the world who can appreciate others, experience and embrace the notion of empathy, and seek lifelong learning.
“This course serves as one of several foundations for developing the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that students will take into every aspect of their studies and professional lives after Fulbright,” Dr. Ian Kalman, a faculty member in Social Science and the course’s instructor, emphasizes.
Not only required to familiarize themselves with all reading materials but students are also asked to analyze texts in ways that are applicable in the classroom and the professional world beyond the classroom. Such ability to process information and to deal with difficult situations is important to everyone personally and professionally.
It is especially important for helping to deal with contemporary global issues at local, national, and international levels. That is why our future change-makers must continue honing the skills to “connect ideas, sourcing, scrutinizing and evaluating information to solve complex problems,” adds Dr. Matthew McDonald, a faculty member in Psychology and this course’s instructor.
To Vu Ha Vy, a Class of 2024 student, the Global Humanities and Social Change course opens her eyes to new ways of viewing issues and encourages her to consider diverse opinions and ideas.
But to Vo Linh Dan, another Co24 student, the course is more than just tangible skills. “It is not the easiest core course, but it is very intellectually rewarding. … I appreciate how it re-shapes my perception of society and humanity. Such experience affirms my plan to pursue History and Social Studies as majors,” she concludes.
Thach Thao – Thuy Hang
* Following the American tradition, students begin their studies at Fulbright by building a breadth of knowledge and skills through a set of core courses of the liberal arts and science. These courses incorporate the key competencies of critical, innovative, and creative thinking, effective communication, reasoning, civic engagement, collaboration, ethical reasoning, and lifelong learning. These courses also illustrate the power of interdisciplinary study to solve modern problems.
The core curriculum includes: Global Humanities and Social Change, Modern Vietnamese Culture & Society, Quantitative Reasoning for a Digital Age, Scientific Inquiry, and Design and Systems Thinking.
Digital technology transforms the way we live: from how we travel, to what we use for money, to how we swipe to find love. At the heart of these social, cultural, and economic changes lie mathematics and computer science. But how can we gather the information, interpret the data, and construct the algorithms that drive these advances and affect our lives?
It is commonly expected that students who wish to gain a better understanding of data and computer science will specialize in STEM fields before getting to those big questions. But Fulbright’s newly minted course titled Quantitative Reasoning in the Digital Age is part of our core curriculum, which means it is compulsory for all students regardless of their backgrounds and career goals. Whether they wish to specialize in immediately relevant fields, e.g. Engineering or Integrated Science, or if they intend to pursue supposedly more tangential fields, such as Vietnamese Studies or History. All students stand to benefit from a balanced set of quantitative and qualitative analysis skills to develop a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of a complex world, the necessary foundation to become flexible thinkers and agile problem solvers.
“Qualitative approaches are sometimes given greater emphasis in the humanities, but students should be aware of different ways of looking at similar kinds of problems. For example, I could imagine students having taken classes such as Dr. Kalman’s digital anthropology suddenly making connections between the way they studied people and cultures in digital spaces and how they could investigate this differently using data-centric approaches they learn in our class,” explains Dr. Walker.
A behavioral economist, Dr. Walker designed the course with two other professors: Dr. Tran Vinh Linh, specialized in applied mathematics, and Dr. Sebastian Dziallas, a computing education specialist. With a deep emphasis on interdisciplinary thinking, this constitutes a concerted effort to go beyond the common understanding of “hard” and “soft” sciences, offering every student a groundbreaking introduction to computational thinking and data driven approaches. The professors are supported by 3 sophomores working as teaching assistants for the semester. Throughout the course, the students will work in groups to conduct research and model ways people make friends and build social networks before sharing their insights in their final presentations.
In this ambitious course, students gain exposure to mathematical and programming tools that allow them to extrapolate, visualize and find meaning in data. While Fulbright’s version of Quantitative reasoning does indeed develop foundational skills in mathematics and computer science, it does so concurrently to demonstrating how those concepts inform fields as diverse as economics, psychology, history, and philosophy. For Tran Thanh Thuy, who had already developed an interest in computer science, enrolling in the course made her better appreciate its possibilities. “When I enrolled for the class I was focused on the “computing” aspect. So I was surprised when the problems we were given related to so many different topics. There was biology, social networks, chemistry, and so on. It really showed me that computer science is useful for everything, as long as we know how we can convert our problem into usable numbers and the tools we can use to find a solution,” she recalled.
This sense of discovery is critical to any introductory class. For students who already have notions of specializing like Thuy, this is both an opportunity to confirm their interest and experience different ways to approach their future specialty. For those unfamiliar with the subject, the course constitutes a major determinant for future career orientation. “As a core course, the goal is not to turn everyone into a math specialist. You might come out of the course thinking ‘I didn’t expect that. Maybe I’ll take another course.’ And that’s great. You can also come out having learned something you didn’t expect, even if you know that this isn’t for you. That’s also a win.’,” explains Dr. Dziallas.
Although quantitative reasoning is a technical topic, dense theoretical lectures are not the focus- individual discovery takes center stage instead. Compared to standard lesson plans that begin with theory, before moving to how it is applied, and ending with problems for students to solve, the approach here is reversed. The professors start with problems that have real and immediate application, before consolidating and concluding with the underpinning theory. For example, students were made to find the shortest point between two locations, a ubiquitous problem routinely solved by rideshare and map applications around the globe. “By giving them real world problems, we encourage students to find ways to turn information into useable data that can be modeled mathematically, use computational tools to assist said modelling, before drawing conclusions that will answer the problem,” says Dr. Linh. This problem-theory-application-problem cycle gives students a reason to drive their own learning and go through the “pain” of assimilating theory. Each worksheet given in class must be solved by students either individually or in groups, and function as both puzzle and building block, leading to larger understanding.
“Think of this course as a video game: on one level you solve riddles that give you useful tools to solve those on the next levels, and you plow ahead until reaching the endgame,” says Nguyen Cao Nghi. As both a second-year and as a teaching assistant for this course, he summarizes the Fulbright method rather succinctly: “rather than depositing knowledge in students’ heads, the aim is to constantly challenge them to find their own methods with as little guidance as possible.”
“But you’re not alone in this game,” he continues. “You are always supported by your 5 teammates, 3 TAs, 3 instructors, and a team of more than 10 peer mentors from the Learning Support department.”
In the professors’ perspective, teaching assistants have played a crucial role in making this introductory course more accessible, as they often quickly identified aspects of the course that could be challenging. Beyond difficult mathematical concepts, a surprising issue was the use of English vocabulary. Not because students didn’t know a specific word, but instead because that word had varied definition. A perfect illustration is the word graph: “It can mean a social network in the context of the class. In math, it usually refers to a mathematical function. In economics, it’s usually related to supply and demand. Because we identified it quickly we could clarify immediately,” explains Graeme.
Beyond the lexical difficulties, however, graphs and other visual medium such as maps further posed unique challenges to the two visually-impaired Fulbrighters currently studying quantitative reasoning. The professors, TAs, and academic assistant had to devise unconventional solutions to ensure the materials were accessible to all, such as creating tactile maps or even simply drawing matrices and vectors on the palm of their hands.
“This course is very new and exciting to us, and I can only imagine how foreign it can be to them. We have learned so much from the different perspectives involved in the making of this course,” Graeme emphasized.
What constitutes an approachable problem for a budding computer scientist might not be the same for a student who has a stronger affinity for the social sciences or the humanities, making such varied backgrounds and expectations a major challenge when designing the course.
Furthermore, while some students are sophomores used to Fulbright’s active, student-centric approach to learning, others are first years coming from high school, where traditional teaching methods emphasize learning the right answers to perform well on a test. “It’s quite new for Vietnamese students to do anything rather informal like this. In high school, they all have their book, they learn by heart to do well on the exam, without wondering about the hows and whys of what they are learning,” explains Dr. Linh.
Yet what could be a detriment can also become a strength. In quantitative reasoning, students are encouraged to learn from their peers as much as they learn from the teaching assistants and the professors.
“In the class, we often work in groups or pairs. Sometimes I’m the one explaining, sometimes someone else will see it from an angle I hadn’t thought about at all. And I am most enthusiastic about working with my team on the science project. We have many different roles to conduct experiments, to think through the data, to learn from each other. I think it’s a great way for me to develop myself,” reflects Thuy.
This collaborative spirit is crucial at Fulbright, and it is not reserved to students. As an innovative course, the professors found necessary to offer channels for students to take charge and refine the learning experience for themselves and their future peers, thus getting acquainted with the co-designing process at the core of Fulbright’s philosophy. Every lesson, students are encouraged to provide feedback on their learning experience through reflections and short surveys, a constant two-way channel of communication. “We have to do the reflection at the end of the class, every time. I think that is also a good time for some people who are not really good at math or science to explain their difficulties,” says Thuy.
Furthermore, the survey questions themselves – designed by students in a prior year – are subject to being changed, added upon, or even removed. “People often think that innovation is a product or something that you produce, but it’s really a process. And being part of that process is very important for students to experience. How they can take somebody else’s work and improve upon it, and how this is one way that we continue to make things a little bit better,” concludes Graeme.
In the true Fulbright spirit, they will present their findings with the Fulbright community when the course ends, building tighter social networks along the way.
At Fulbright, students begin their studies by gaining a range of knowledge and skills through a set of compulsory core courses. The core curriculum is a common trait of American liberal arts institutions, yet at Fulbright, it is designed and revised to be adaptable to trends and challenges in global higher education, while staying rooted in the Vietnamese context.
Developing practical and fundamental skill sets
Compared to previous generations, students today place more importance on career preparation. According to Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, “They’re much more pragmatic. They say their primary reason for going to college is to get training and skills that will lead to a job, and let them make money.” This preference is one of the driving forces of 21st-century education. A survey commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) suggests that in today’s highly competitive and fast-paced economy, well-paid jobs require both specific knowledge in a field of study and a broad range of interdisciplinary skills – some of which are notably well developed through liberal arts education.
Humanities, arts, and social sciences were traditionally considered the heart of the liberal arts. Modern institutions, however, have adopted much more comprehensive programs, incorporating STEM subjects that are in high demand. At Fulbright, the core curriculum consists of five courses that extend across multiple disciplines, introducing students to a multi-dimensional worldview and preparing them for their future academic and professional journeys. These courses include Scientific Inquiry, Quantitative Reasoning for a Digital Age, Design and Systems Thinking, Global Humanities and Social Change, and Modern Vietnamese Culture and Society.
For the Fulbright core curriculum, it is not just about the content itself, but about developing key academic skills and mindsets for students. For example, Quantitative Reasoning for a Digital Age gives students basic mathematical and computational tools to solve problems, but the goal is not necessarily to educate future mathematicians or data scientists. Instead, students learn to think logically, to observe phenomena through the lens of numbers, to break away from subjective biases, and to work as a team. These skills allow them to make evidence-based judgments and communicate more effectively in a workplace.
Likewise, Scientific Inquiry is an exploration into the world of natural sciences. “It’s not really about physics, biology, chemistry, or anything in particular, it’s more skill-based than content-based. What we want the students to learn is how to put on the thinking hat of a scientist, how to think like a scientist, how to understand what scientific data means or how scientific knowledge is generated,” says former faculty member Dr. Samhitha Raj, one of the four faculty members who developed the course. Through collaborative projects, students practice collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, as well as critically evaluating scientific claims.
Engaged, informed, and mindful citizens
Not only are students equipped with pragmatic skills, they also nurture a better understanding of their surroundings and empathy for those around them. By studying with classmates from diverse backgrounds, with varied strengths and interests, students learn to discuss different opinions in a respectful manner.
Global Humanities and Social Change examines key moments in global history and introduces students to significant works of literatary expression across philosophy, the arts, and religion. Students are guided through evolutions of thought, and how those have brought about transformation and have shaped perception in the contemporary world. It also provides a chance for students to respond to each other’s ideas in group conversations, allowing them to develop a more balanced point of view and to become more accepting of different perspectives.
Correspondingly, Design and Systems Thinking aims to help student identify and propose methods of problem solving in society today. The course introduces them to an array of tools, principles, and processes, such as how to identify and explain a market friction and an associated opportunity; how to build a prototype that serves a certain purpose for society; or how to make decisions based on technical judgment when several options or solutions are available.
A dilemma for students who pursue international programs is that they might feel disconnected from their own country, and have a hard time relating what they have learned to the Vietnamese context. One of Fulbright’s core courses, Modern Vietnamese Culture & Society addresses this issue. As a deep dive into the historical, cultural, social, economic and even political dimensions of modern and contemporary Vietnam, this course helps students explore Vietnamese identity and how to situate Vietnam in the region and in the world. With an open and critical mind, students develop unique ways to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.
The foundations for lifelong learning
In 2014, a Gallup survey attempted to examine “the relationship between the college experience and whether college graduates have great jobs and great lives.” Their findings were somber. Only 39% of graduates had found employment, and only 11% were thriving in all elements of personal wellbeing: social, physical, financial, community and purpose. It also revealed that graduates enjoyed significantly higher chances of having profitable jobs and fulfilling lives if well-prepared for life after graduation.
Such preparation is what Fulbright strives to deliver. After students finish their studies here, the takeaways gleaned from the core curriculum will remain advantageous throughout their lives. Facing a future of change and uncertainty, one can only stay ahead if they understand history and what processes have shaped humanity today. And as the world evolves, and new forms of knowledge will emerge, graduates cannot succeed without the skills of critical thinking and logical reasoning, proficiency in problem-solving, highly developed interpersonal skills, and the desire to be a life-long learner.
Despite the two years of core and exploratory curriculum required before declaring a major, it is possible that later down the road, students may still want or need to alter their chosen paths. In fact, a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that only 27 percent of college graduates work in a field related to their major. With data from 125 million professional profiles, Emsi, a labor market analytics firm, also concludes that “the typical path is more of a swirl than a straight line.”
In these cases, such foundational knowledge and skills will support graduates’ transitions, enabling them to adapt more quickly to new environments. Given this foundation, they can effectively acquire new skills and knowledge, and continue to learn and improve. But most importantly, they will face challenges with confidence and courage. “They should be brave, without being afraid of something they haven’t tried,” according to Dr. Tran Vinh Linh, one of the three faculty members teaching Quantitative Reasoning.