The Westlake Talk Show Is Here! The First Dean's Roundtable Held by Undergraduates

11, 2023

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
Phone: +86-(0)571-86886861
Office of Public Affairs

 Recently Westlake University held its first Dean’s Roundtable event with our undergraduates. Let’s take a sneak peek at how the event went and how our great professors are training the next generation of scientists and engineers. The topic of this roundtable was my path to study.

"My English Was Taught by My Math Teacher"

Dean Jian Yang stood at the podium holding a microphone. He said that he is actually a very introverted person, although he usually talks a lot. According to the standards of talk shows, he resembles the restrained yet fierce contestant.

"When I was at school, my memory was poor and I couldn't remember English words. Every time I recited, I started from ‘abandon’ (the first word in the English dictionary)," said Yang. There was a burst of laughter in the room after this revelation. Yang’s English in middle school was taught by his math teacher, "Really, no kidding!"

Dan Yang, dean of Beta College, is the only woman among the four deans. Yang grew up in the mountains of Sichuan because her parents participated in the  "Third Front" construction, an industrialization campaign in China's under-developed areas. She studied during the Cultural Revolution, and at that time it was difficult for the students to stay focused and study. Yet teachers were very attentive, and Yang benefited a lot from that.

Yang likes to ask interesting and provocative questions: "I've been thinking, what's going on with nature? Why are we born in this place? Why are there mountains, water, roads, and people? What's going on with humans? How are we different from animals?"

She still remembers that the teacher taught her to identify fake honey which is mixed with starch and appears thick. After she got home, she used the reagents to test herself. She also fiddled with all kinds of bottles and cans at home, trying to make oxygen to "feed" herself, but was almost suffocated by poisonous gas.

Hongyu Chen, dean of Delta College, also had a similar "atypical experience". He claims that he was a "stupid waste of space" during middle school, but he regained his confidence because of chemistry and tinkered with a small laboratory at home. Chen’s mother was worried that he would not be admitted to university, so she let him learn a lot of "skills" in advance--to be a carpenter and to make holiday lights, springs, and miniature fans.

He once made canned yellow peaches. As a chemistry enthusiast, Chen was curious about why  the canned yellow peaches are so smooth and quickly discovered the secret — the skin of yellow peaches dissolves in sodium hydroxide, , and then the peaches are soaked in hydrochloric acid for neutralization.

Looking back now, there is a big gap between the conditions of these professors during their respective studies and the resources available to students today. In their early school days, they didn’t have standards-based science education, but they all formed the habit of observing and thinking in everyday life. And this habit is one of the important factors that contribute to their future scientific achievements.

"Take Learning as Research"

Ling Li, dean of Alpha College, is also a chair professor at Westlake University. His tone of speech always seems to be steady and slow, but unconsciously, he led this joyful "talk show" to a deeper level.

He said that compared with knowledge itself, the process of knowledge generation deserves more attention. We need to understand not only knowledge itself, but the research process of knowledge as well. Therefore, he directly recommends the learning method of "taking learning as research" to students.

"Think about it, this knowledge is all researched by our predecessors. If you put yourself in a position to challenge yourself, you have to get to the bottom of it," he said. Memorizing a formula is a kind of learning, but how to understand a formula? In this way, learning and research are closer, and both require original thinking. And this kind of thinking is consistent on the path of a scientist's growth.

“This quest is sometimes long, but worth it,” Li says. Li ended his sharing with a little story of his own. During his time at the University of Edinburgh, he had been thinking hard about the problem of the dynamic boundary of the tides, and built a mathematical model, but he had no solution.

Due to the influence of the North Atlantic warm current, Edinburgh hardly ever snowed, but that year was extremely cold, and then it snowed heavily. Li was on his way to school in the snow when he suddenly had an idea—not only was the equation solved, but he also got a richer physical interpretation.

"If you are really interested in specific issues, they will not leave you easily, they will always trouble you, but often inadvertently, good things will happen," Li said.

In the audience of this event were undergraduates of Westlake, students who have just entered the first stage of scientific enlightenment. This learning exchange, which is more like a talk show, may have planted some good seeds among them. Perhaps one day in the future, similar inspiration will come to them like it did to Li on that snowy Scottish day.