Summer Course Provide Global Perspectives for US and China Students
Six UM chemistry majors joined 24 students at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) this summer for two intensive 4-week courses. The Zhiyuan (Honors) College at SJTU offered tuition-free enrollment to UM students who wished to attend “An Introduction to Chemical Biology and Bio-Organic Reaction Mechanisms” and “Nano-Materials Chemistry.”
The summer program in Shanghai created a two-fold opportunity for the UM science students: to study abroad with local students, and to fulfill upper level course credit in their UM degree program. These intermediate elective courses have been challenging for the U-M chemistry department to offer due to staffing and enrollment demands in its basic program.
The Chemical Biology course was team taught by UM Professor Brian Coppola and Professor Jean-Paul Desaulniers, a former UM post-doc and participant in the UM Chemistry’s future faculty program, who is currently on the faculty at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. The Chemical Biology course was designed around active classroom problem solving, student presentation, and discussion of advanced topics. Professor Thomas Seery, from the University of Connecticut, taught the Nano-Materials course.
The UM chemistry and biochemistry majors who enrolled in these classes were Samuel Sheets, Zachary Hall, Zohaib Siddiqi, Patricia Simmer, Nicholas Huang, and Wanhong (Windy) Zhu.
“The experience has been great,” says Zach. “The SJTU students were very helpful. I don't think I would have ever gone to China without this program, but very glad I have been able to see this part of the world.” Nick noted, “the experience of taking classes was certainly quite different from simply visiting a country. It was a fantastic experience, particularly to be interacting with individuals who have a strong background in chemistry, but who could not always articulate it in English as well as we could. Collaborating with them created interesting and important challenges for us to overcome. It was still fun, and as we got to understand how the Chinese education system worked, it also helped me reflect on what the strengths and weaknesses of American education are. And classes were not the whole story, of course, as we also got to explore various cultural and modern facets of China that are not necessarily represented in America. In fact, I had a lot of fun learning about the different aspects of China that I didn't quite know before.”
“I had heard about the campus being pretty far from the city center,” Patricia remarked, “so I thought that I might spend a lot of time on my own, focusing on my studies. But transportation was easy and convenient, and we got out to see the sights and explore a lot more than I thought I would, and I'm really happy for that! It was very interesting to go through this course with other students, and for once, to really feel like the minority in the classroom.” As was true for Nick, she noted a number of cross-cultural comparisons. “It was also quite interesting to see how students here interact and work with each other. It's both the same and not the same as back home. I think that while the whole class character feels a little bit outwardly timid, they are a lot more willing to work together. It seems like the students here are less willing to stand out, and that makes the class unit more cohesive, even if it does sometimes make for awkward silences when it time to go to the board! Compared to what I have seen in the US, the class was much more willing to do group activities like KTV or eating dinner together, and this made taking classes here a uniquely different and positive experience.”
Patricia also reflected on some broader values. “I find myself wishing I had a little bit of extra time. I wish I had gone out and tried to play sports or go to the pool with students from SJTU. As it was, I spent almost all of my free time exploring the city. No regrets there! And I think it was valuable to me to be able to experience this new place among my peers. Being in China not only let us take classes in a different setting, it also let us live and explore a new environment as well. Being here, even for a month, it almost felt like my transition from high school to college, that's how big of a change I felt… the freedom to make decisions, to go explore a city where I can enjoy and appreciate the struggle to even communicate with strangers, or just to wander around this huge campus, has been a completely out-of-the-comfort-zone experience.”
Sam’s reaction was practical, “to me, this experience was both productive and taught me more about chemistry. The classes themselves weren't too much different from a Michigan chemistry course, but the fact that it was mostly Chinese students did give the atmosphere a completely different feel. While technical and scientific English was the most challenging, it was clear that our Chinese peers all had a very good grasp of chemistry and they helped me learn more efficiently. All in all, while China sometimes feels very different from home, in a lot of ways it's not too far off.”
Yang Yunqi, one of the SJTU students, believes that “everyone learned a lot while having fun.” She and her colleagues all remarked on the “different style of these classes [compared with their traditional lecture format]. We have discussions with classmates sitting around about every problem first, and then show our answers before all of the class. This gives us a great chance to exchange ideas with each other, especially with our foreign friends… and also beyond the classes, we also talked about ourselves. I know more about American life and universities from them. One of our classmates, Ida, sent these words to me, and I think these are what all our Chinese students want to say: we want to say thanks to the students from Michigan, cuz you were always so pleasant to help us when we didn't quite get the prof's point in the class, or when we cannot express our ideas clearly in English.”
Xiao Zhujun, one of the students in the class, was also one of the volunteers who assisted the Michigan students with adjusting to campus and helping out when needed. “At first, we were not quite accustomed to the course. In fact, because I was studying for the TOEFL, I even thought about quitting the course. However, I could turn to Patty [Simmer] without hesitation. I thought: it’s really a good way to improve ourselves, so I kept going.”
Zhujun also commented, as did most of the students, on the classroom format. “Especially in the class of Chemical biology and Biochemistry, the professors wanted us to discuss the problems with our friends and show our answers on the blackboard. Through this method, we experienced a new teaching style, and I think it will do much help to our studies in the future. All of us were grateful to them and learned from them a lot. I think it’s everyone’s wish to have such course again.”
“Fifteen years ago, when I started to do work in China, I could not really imagine being here, teaching in a class made up of this interesting mix of students,” says Coppola. “It is really great to be able to provide such a genuine study abroad experience for our majors which is not only a science class that counts, but is also seriously something that we have a hard time offering in Ann Arbor.”
The instructors report that the UM students had a thorough command of the subject material, and in class they were very interactive, working with the Chinese students to discuss solutions to the problems.
At the closing ceremony, Professor Huai Sun, SJTU director for the program, concluded, “this program is a successful experiment.” The SJTU students, on their home campus, experienced a new teaching environment provided by the visiting professors. The foreign students learned a lot by engaging education on a totally different campus across the world from Ann Arbor.” Sun also remarked that “it is a good experience for us -- the educators. Through this program, we have learned something about the meaning of global education, which is a popular idea nowadays, even if there is no global agreement about what it means. One thing for sure: having young people study, learn, and interact with one another in a cross-cultural setting is essential for training our future leaders.”
Financial assistance for the U-M students toward their travel and housing was generously provided by the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, a Experiential Learning Fund Grant from the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, and the U-M Office of Financial Aid.
Coppola would like to thank to Dean Xiaofan Wang for his vision and valued support, and Vice Dean for Education Xi Ye, Professor Huai Sun, and the terrific staff of the Zhiyuan College for their tireless assistance in making all the details run so smoothly.