An Auspicious Beginning to COSEE-China

March 12, 2010 in China by Carrie Armbrecht

blog entry by Eric Simms

I was expecting a lot of things upon my arrival in Beijing – new sights, new sounds, new food, new people.  But not snow.  Although it’s not unusual for it to be cold in Beijing this time of year, it is unusual for it to snow there.  Not only was I surprised, but our Chinese colleagues were, too – especially the ones who had to travel across the city for an early start to our meeting.  It turned out, however, that the snow is considered an auspicious sign that the gods are smiling in our favor, so our efforts here appeared to be off to a good start.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this workshop.  Initially I imagined that a number of differences – e.g., language, how the research and education communities are structured – would outweigh our ability to make significant progress in our limited time together.  But after four days, I’m encouraged and excited about the possibility of advancing ocean sciences education in China.  We’ve had a chance to learn about the state of ocean science research and education from many Chinese scientists and educators, and have done our best to reciprocate.

As I write this, we’re all on a 3-hour flight from Xiamen (pronounced ‘sha-men’) to Qingdao (pronounced ‘ching-dow’).  We’ve just finished a 48-hour visit on the southern China coast to visit one of the leading oceanographic institutions in the country – Xiamen University.  Our time was spent visiting high school and undergraduate students and educators, and ocean scientists, to learn more about how their education and research programs are structured.

Interestingly enough, scientists and educators here share many of the same challenges and constraints as those in the U.S. – primarily, limited time and resources, and swimming against the tide of established professional cultures that are often resistant to change.  Not surprisingly, Chinese students would rather not spend their days in a class room any more than students in the U.S., perhaps even more so since their days begin at 7;30 and end at 4:30, followed by 3 hours of homework.

In general, the pre-college education experience for Chinese students is based on a very prescribed, rigorous curriculum largely determined by the federal government. A tremendous amount of importance is placed on standardized tests that students take in middle school and high school, which largely determine whether or not they are able to attend university, and what career opportunities they will be able to pursue.  As a Chinese student, your academic performance can either open or close doors of opportunity, but once they close it can be nearly impossible to open them again. As a result, Chinese students are under a tremendous amount of pressure to excel at their studies.

Similar to the U.S., ocean science concepts are largely absent from the Chinese curriculum and testing, and their educational system appears to leave little room for including new approaches.  For those of us engaged in ocean sciences education in the US. it is encouraging to know that we are facing the same challenges, and may be able to work together towards some common solutions.  But perhaps most important is the desire and will that has been expressed by all parties during this workshop to move forward with this collaboration.  It may all begin with small steps, and time will tell the outcome, but it seems like the right people and organizations are involved to get things moving and affect some change.

I’ll sign off by sharing the Chinese character for ‘ocean’.  Collectively, it’s a combination of the three characters for water, mother, and man – taken together it translates as ‘The ocean is the mother of all mankind’.  It’s hard to think of a more fitting reminder of the fact that there is only one global ocean, and just as the ocean takes care of all of us, we’re all on the hook to return the favor.

海 The ocean = 水 water + 人 man + 母 mother