It was past dusk and a group of ShanghaiTech students were prowling around in the dark at Shanghai’s Chenshan Botanical Garden using only their smart phones to light the way. Walking through a grassy area, they came upon a surprising sight. The two hedgehogs they found out on an evening stroll were probably just as surprised to see the students, who typically spend more time in the lab than in the outdoors.
“My classmates found the hedgehogs, brought them back to the classroom to examine them and then released them back into their natural environment,” remembers Dai Zhizhuo, a student in SLST’s graduating class of 2020.
This kind of nighttime walkabout is just one of the lessons that are part of a unique class offered by ShanghaiTech during its summer session in partnership with the China Academy of Sciences at Chenshan Botanical Garden. The intensive life sciences class offers students a chance to get out of the classroom and into nature to learn the fundamentals of botany; plant, insect and bird identification; plant ecology; essential oil extraction; nature photography; and horticulture.
ShanghaiTech’s cooperation with CAS Chenshan Botanical Garden gives students the opportunity to take a foundation-level life sciences class that isn’t normally offered as part of ShanghaiTech’s curriculum. With the university’s focus on lab research, STEAM learning, and collaboration with neighboring enterprises and research institutes in Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park, the university wanted to supplement its course offerings with hands-on learning.
The class was first offered in summer of 2016 and has proved so popular that in 2017 many more students signed up than the forty first- and second-year students who were eventually accepted into the class. For sure, some students may have signed up thinking that the chance to get out into nature would mean an easier class, but professors who teach the class don’t necessarily agree.
“We did some lectures, but at least half of the class time is spent outside identifying specimens which we then we bring back to the classroom to learn about,” says Professor Du Cheng, a CAS scientist at the botanical garden, and a well-known popular science figure on Weibo social media. “It seems easier and less stressful, but actually it’s not.”
In the second year of the class, the professors removed the end of class exam to ease the pressure on students and replaced it with a group presentation. “Exams have their benefits, but this learning style also has its benefits,” Professor Du explains. “This class is too short to do both, so we decided to get rid of the exam.”
Instead, they make use of the outdoor classroom at their disposal to hold unconventional classes like the after-dark expedition to learn about nocturnal animals and insects. While the hedgehogs were an unexpected find, the professors also led the students to collect and categorize moths and beetles as well as frogs. “One day we had them get up at five-thirty in the morning to observe the birds,” Professor Du remembers. “There are twenty different varieties of birds here, and we could see some of them bathing, while others you could only hear their songs.”
Towards the end of the eight-day class, the students are divided into teams of five who choose a topic related to nuts and grains, fruits and vegetables, spices or medicinal herbs and complete an intensive 48-hour research project which they then present with the class. Professor Du says, “Our main goal is to practice their ability to research and think critically.” The students who are selected to take part in the class are all top-level students, he says, and through this exercise they are able to exercise their evaluation skills. “Every explanation has its origin,” Professor Du says, “but these can be proved or refuted with reliable evidence. The students learn to point out the weak points in an article’s argument.”
Wang Yuan, who guides the teams through the process of researching their presentations says he sees the students’ critical thinking develop even over such a short period of time. “We encourage them to use modern research methods to consider and think about [their topic] and let them research on their own. The change is quite great.”
Even afterwards, students who have taken the class report the experience has continued to stay with them. The students stay connected with the professors through a QQ group where they can post photos of insects and plants that they come across on campus and post questions. But the professors hope that the research skills they’ve learned will stick with them. “This may be a foundation course, but we use the most modern teaching methods, and what the students take away from the course is useful in any discipline,” Professor Du says.