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Hong Kong vocational science student finds studies tough without a chemistry background

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With secondary students increasingly opting not to take science electives for the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examination, those who enter vocational science training programmes are finding themselves stretched in keeping up with their courses.

Ryan Lai Man-kin, a year 1 student at the Chai Wan campus of the Institute of Vocational Education (IVE), is one of them.

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He is currently enrolled in the higher diploma in environmental science programme with plans to pursue a career in environment testing and protection, a growing sector in the city’s innovation and technology industry.

Despite his passion for environmental issues, Lai’s lack of a background in chemistry caused him to struggle with his studies.

“I do not immediately understand what the instructor is teaching, so I always have to study the materials again after class to get the point. I also have to spend a lot more time on revision than my friends with a chemistry background,” he said.

While he was aware that he would need some chemistry knowledge when he enrolled in the programme, Lai was surprised how difficult it was to cope without a chemistry background as it was not listed as an entrance requirement.

In fact, chemistry was also Lai’s Achilles heel in Secondary 4, which led to him dropping it after half a term.

“Chemistry at Secondary 3 level was easier and we did a lot of practicals, which made me interested,” he said.

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But when he had to study it in greater depth in Secondary 4, he did not like memorising elements in English and had difficulties understanding different chemical reactions.

So he dropped chemistry to concentrate on core subjects and his other elective – geography – which he found easier and more interesting.

However, Lai’s course mate, Wilson Lau Wai-sang, who took chemistry at DSE level, said the chemistry class he took was “very easy”, with some of the curriculum similar to what he learned in secondary school.

While the drop in science knowledge runs across the board, those in vocational training institutes are the hardest hit.

Unlike undergraduates who now had one more year to catch up, vocational training programmes tended to be shorter, with higher diploma programmes shortened from three to two years, pointed out Dr Bill Guan Deqi, a senior lecturer in the school’s department of applied science specialising in Chinese medicine.

He explained that the courses were shorter as the institute now took in DSE students instead of those who took the old lower-level Certificate of Education Examination (CEE).

Even though students now entered with one more year of secondary education, Guan said they were struggling more because there appeared to be more students without any background in chemistry in applied science programmes, such as Chinese medicine, compared with the time before the education reform.

“Chemistry is quite important for applied science learning. Before the education reform, some programmes in my department required students to take chemistry at CEE level. Now it is not a requirement,” he said.

But the senior lecturer explained the relaxation of the entrance requirement was necessary to ensure there were enough students eligible for the programmes while aligning their practice with the new education system, which does not separate students into science and arts streams.

As such, the department had to open more chemistry classes, he said.

Philip Mok Hung-kong, senior lecturer in Western medicine, agreed with Guan. He said the essential chemistry class now offered by the department included more foundation elements to help those with no chemistry background.

While having a chemistry background gave students a leg up, Lau Tak-yan, programme leader for environmental science at the Chai Wan campus, said it was often those without a background who fared better because they worked harder.

A spokeswoman for the Vocational Training Council said that as more students did not have a science background, it would soon set up three new education centres to focus on science, technology, engineering and maths. They would come with help desks and serve as a platform for exchanges and collaboration with overseas students, industry partners and professional bodies, she said.



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