March 25, 2017: Chinese Ministry of Education Address

Since 2009, 19 top universities in China have been getting about $20M a year (each) from the Ministry of Education to develop programs to better educate the top tier university students at those schools. To us, these would look something like Honors programs, although the underlying mission is to identify and promote those who are deemed “gifted and talented.”

In 2017, at the annual meeting that the Ministry convenes of these schools, I was among four foreign individuals who were asked to talk about our strategies for working with “gifted and talented” students.

Here is the link to that presentation.

Saturday, March 25, 2017
Shandong University
Jinan, China

Gifted and Talented

A couple of weeks ago, while I was in China, I was invited to return about three weeks later (this week) to give a talk at a meeting being organized by the Ministry of Education.

The schools being hosted at this meeting are the 19 institutions that were charged, in 2009, with developing programs for “gifted and talented” students.

These programs have given these schools an unusual chance to explore some customized and non-standardized curriculum experiments, which is usually tough to do because the curricula in China are all centrally mandated.

For the most part, these programs are comparable to “Honors” programs in the US. A selected group of students can take smaller classes with different pacing and emphasis than their mainstream counterparts. At many of the schools, the students in the “gifted and talented” stream are not only able to finish most, if not all, of their undergraduate coursework (which is substantial) in three years, but they are eligible for partial fellowship support that enables them to travel to a foreign country for the senior undergraduate research.

There is an underlying tension in the educational system in China whose real resolution is going to be tough to achieve. The country is accustomed to picking a target, throwing resources at it, and getting fast results. The country is also restless for being able to create genius as a product of its education system. The “Nobel Lust” is palpable.

Unfortunately, I think that genius, at least the sort of genius that lends itself to Nobel Prizes, is not so much trained for as it is the result of a cultural orientation and context.

The invitation I got needs to be understood from the perspective I have described above, because the request was to answer the question “What do US universities do for gifted and talented students?” (including the sub-text “…so that we can do it, too”).

The talk is an opportunity to educate, because the question itself is flawed. The question carries that underlying sort of desperation that one is only lacking a key piece of information needed to effect a change.

I have said it before and I am saying it again: if information alone was enough to effect change, there would be no physicians who smoked, were sedentary, or who were overweight (or, for that matter, who participated in any medically ill-advised behaviors).

And ‘behavior’ is the key word. Behaviors are social, psychological, emotional, and not at all cleanly isolated from your whole self. You cannot just pull on the one thread.

Certainly, teaching and learning are complex behaviors that are highly socially constructed. And there are plenty of people in the US making the mistake that factual information about teaching (‘research-based instructional practices’ as they say) can transform a bad teacher into a good one.

Give a weapon to an idiot, I tell you, and all you get is a weaponized idiot.

It was tempting to give a short, glib talk.

“We do not do anything in higher education for the ‘gifted and talented’ population. This is a legal term that applies to the top 4-6% of students, as judged by some criteria, who are in the pre-college educational system. Thanks for the invitation. Next speaker.”

I have been mulling over this idea of talent and decided that I need to try and take on the reason that the question is the wrong one but reply to it anyway. The question is merely the entering point.

I will spare you the details, but here is the big picture (and as of this writing, it is still a week to the talk, so who knows how this might change in seven days).

I think there are two models for thinking about talent. These two models are our friends, Nature and Nurture.

Let me stick with the two extremes as the way to think this through.

Our jobs as educators are either to locate the talented out from the crowded pack, or to develop and cultivate the talent of the available pool of candidates.

Two of my early slides, then, will set this up.
Then I go in for the kill.

On the one hand (talent as Nature), the use of the discipline in the curriculum is as a gateway, or a filter, through which we locate the pre-existing talent.

On the other hand (talent as Nurture), the discipline really is just a way of knowing, and it can provide a connection and a pathway for some, and serve a broader good as a source of analogy for others to use in other areas.

If you cannot figure out which side I favor, and which side is, at least, historically representative of our culture, then I have been a dismal failure in presenting these cases.

Two recent things point to the US educational system (at least on paper) favoring the Nurture approach over the Nature approach… although, believe me, I understand that it is not representative of all practice, nor is it the direction in which we have been headed these past 10-20 years.

First, Slavich and Zimbardo proposed a wonderfully detailed model for what they called “Transformational Teaching” in 2012, in what I consider to be a landmark paper in Educational Psychology Review. Sticking with the name, the underlying premise of “transformation” is the belief that one can effect change, and so talent is cultivated and developed.

Second, George Kuh, in a 2008 publication of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, described what has become an extremely popular notion of “High Impact Teaching Practices.” Again, there is an underlying rhetorical presumption in our ability to promote and nurture change.

Years ago, in a 1996 paper that I co-authored with ethicist David Smith from Indiana University, we wrote about change and the non-neutrality of education:

Education is not a neutral activity. A sustained program of education inevitably affects the way a student looks at the world, and as a result it must have some effect on the student’s character. Even if we educate poorly or the effect is small, the aggregate outcome on students is still significant, as are our responsibilities.

I am no radical constructivist, and the interplay of Nature and Nurture in the identification, assessment, and development of talent is likely, inevitably, true.

China’s education system is built around Nature, with its testing and ranking and culling, and it misses that you get exactly the talent you have been selecting for, namely, incredibly good test-takers.

It is an error to confuse any locally high talent with global ability.

The idealized liberal arts tradition is compelling: to provide broad exposure to many areas as a source of entry points against which you can match yourself. And also to provide ways of thinking and knowing that can inspire analogies outside of whatever the dogma of the field happens to be. Both of these things allow for new and diverse thinking on problems… and the promise of nurturing genius, which just might be having the perspective and ability to see the new, the interesting, and the possible peeking out from the muck of what is.

Everything You Think You Know About China…

ZC and me (February 2002 and February 2017)

“Everything that you think you know about China is wrong.”

In late February 2001, I wrote this statement as the opening line of a report for my colleagues when I returned from my first trip to Beijing.

Sixteen years later, the statement still holds!

That’s because China is a moving target. And therein lie both the intrigue and the charm of the place.

In 2001, I was searching for a way to say that many of my own stereotypes about China needed to be thrown into the heap after that first trip.

The caricature of science in China is what we disparagingly call doing “turn the crank” experiments: no invention, perhaps not even a strong sense for the fundamental theory behind the buttons being pushed on the equipment, and the generation of experimental data without a strong critical sense to sort out the wheat from the chaff. In fact, this was neither universal nor the norm in 2001, and by any number of US-generated reports, we are on a fast-track trajectory towards second place.

Placed in the context of history, the progress made by Chinese science – which, effectively, did not exist from 1949-1980, a time during which Western science grew enormously – was spectacular. In twenty years’ time, 1980-2000, much of science had rebooted to levels that were in places only about a decade behind us, and in other places right up to date. In the past fifteen years, this gap has narrowed.

The rate of progress is what people miss when they have not been there, because perhaps you are calibrated to your own neighborhood. I’ll pick my most favorite concrete example: mass transportation. In 2001, the era of the massive movement of people on bicycles through the middle of Beijing was just about over. By 2003, you just did not see this any more. In 2001, there were about 25 miles of subway in Beijing – the circular Line 2, outlining the place where the old city wall stood, and the linear Line 1, cutting line 2 about 2/3 of the way down, just south of Tiananmen Square, and extended just a few stops on each side of Line 2. You paid 2 RMB (then about 25 cents) at a window for a paper ticket, which you walked over to a person a few feet away to tear and let you pass. Other cities were deemed “too small” to support subways. Fifteen years later, there are 300 miles of subway and light rail around Beijing, and the fast-train connections between cities that cut down 12-16 hour travel to 3-4 hours.

Nothing is perfect, a lot depends on your source of news and your perspective, which the 2016 US elections have certainly proved.

The rate of change in China, given that most modernization did not start until 1977, is what you need to look at. Stock values… the temperature… everything is defined by small ups and downs. But back up for a decade or two of perspective and you can see where the real trends are located.

And when you combine rate with scale, you get momentum. It is not just a few people moving forward. As one of our Beijing hosts said in 2001 when I was wrapping my head around what 1.3 billion people meant: “Remember, this is China, if you are one in million…” he paused… “there are 1300 of you.”

With Professor Wang, Dean of Chemistry, Nankai University
February 24, 2017

The Knock on my Door

Illustration from Puck(?) ca. 1880-90
by Frederick Opper (1857-1937)
12 x 18 in., ink on paper
Coppola Collection

I got this inquiry from an academic program director earlier today:

We are concerned because [a student] received a C- in your course without a single progress report getting filed, alerting us to [the student’s] apparent difficulties. We have no concerns about the legitimacy of the final grade, but we are trying to understand what happened, particularly the lack of any red flags to [the student’s] academic advisors to intervene. 

I would be grateful for a prompt response to this query.

I do love this question. Here was my reply:

Honestly, “C-” is a passing grade, and [the student] had a C/C- borderline performance throughout the term, and went down a bit on the final, which glued in the final grade. But it could have gone either way.

I would not start even think about making reports unless things are falling under the “D/E” (failing) threshold.

There are no other graded components other than the exams, so the TAs have no access to individual student performances and would not have been in a position to issue any report, regardless.

Much more to the point, though:

I’d be quite interested in following up, sometime, on the benefits and detriments of proactive interventions on the educational experience of our students. The late Professor Emerita Seyhan Ege and I had a delightful and ultimately unresolvable disagreement about this choice, and I miss the lively debate about it since her passing.

We both agreed that the conversation with the faculty member was the most important thing for the student who is in academic trouble… no debate on that. We disagreed on the path.

Seyhan contended that the conversation was the most important thing, so anything to get it to happen was necessary. She wrote personal notes on the exam papers of the students below a certain value, urging them to her office. I have never done this. And I argued that it was detrimental.

I contend that the decision to acknowledge the need for the conversation is the most important thing, so as long as my openness to make appointments and talk is well known, then admitting to one’s self that the appointment is necessary is a significantly more long-lasting educational lesson, in the long run, than the conversation itself.

Seyhan and I agreed that there were students we were each throwing under the bus because of our position. Some of her students lost the rare opportunity to learn how to self-regulate, while at the same time others benefitted from the interaction in her office. I sometimes see students who finally show up – yes, in desperation – and then who end up kicking themselves for not having come in earlier (remember the last line spoken by the Deanna Troi character in the ST:TNG finale, ca. 1994… “You were always welcome.”).

Anyhow, it’s a great topic.

I know this program director well, so I was not at all worried about opening this debate. The response:

You raise really important questions, which is partly why I am pursuing this. I’m interested in figuring out how effective long-term support (as opposed to just ensuring students get good grades) might get provided. My query was prompted by the fact that in this particular student’s case, not a single red flag was raised, in courses across the curriculum, although in retrospect it’s clear they should have been. We might reasonably disagree on where to draw the line of concern; maybe it’s my weak-kneed social-science/humanities attitude that anything below B- is a concern, but that’s a minor quibble.

The bigger issue is exactly about proactive interventions. So let’s revisit that question over coffee sometime.

In reply, I could not help but make sure the point was being made:

I am 100% sympathetic to the dilemma, particularly the unasked question.

Why wasn’t the student at my door… at your door… at the advisors’ doors… if the situation was so uniformly dire? My own concern is that the student’s instructors were the second-most important people who were not raising red flags. [The student], to me, is the first most responsible and has not yet learned that.

“But officer, I speed all the time and no one has ever pulled me over, so I thought it was OK.”

Or, is this really about someone who does not know how to swim – and does not know that they do not know, because they see everyone around them swimming just fine – and jumps into the deep end, figuring that surely, if I start to drown, someone will notice and rescue me.

Fingers, Moons, Trucks, and Groceries

Let’s go with the Confucius attribution for this one:
‘When a wise man points at the moon, the imbecile examines the finger.’

We do too much finger-examinating in education. Time and time (and time) again, teaching effectiveness is not readily attributed to the talent and insight of the individual educator, but rather to a vehicle that carries information. The reasons for this are comprehensible enough and you also see it time and time (and time) again when it comes to talent-based activities that everyone wants to be able to do well.

If you see a photographer whose work you admire and you ask what sort of camera and lenses were used as the strategy to take better pictures.

If you eat a complex meal that was well prepared and you ask what sort of oven and pots and knives were used as the strategy to make delicious food.

If you see a painter whose work you admire and you ask what sort of canvas and paints were used as the strategy to make better pictures.

If you see a builder whose work you admire and you ask what sort of tools were used as the strategy to make better furniture.

You get the idea? These are all examples of staring at the finger.

A talented chef can cook MAINLY because of talent, not because of tools. I do not want to put too fine a point on it, because clearly having a sharp knife and a food processor could be better than not having them, but all things being equal, an imbecile with a sharp knife is still an imbecile, while a chef with a stone club and a campfire can probably turn out a masterpiece.

People ask about what kind of camera I use ALL the time when they are paying me a sideways compliment about the pictures I take. It really makes no sense – pictures are composed by the brain behind the camera.

We have reached a point in higher education where talent is nearly universally denied in favor of “deliverable research-based classroom methods” (our data shows that there is a correlation between taking great pictures and using a good camera… so, incredibly enough, the converse must be true). If you participate in various classroom practices, then you are a better instructor and the students are learning more.

PLEASE – take me on and debate this point!

Culturally, we have repeated this error in confounding information delivery with education so many times that the profession probably ought to be brought up on misconduct charges. Books… the mail service… radio… television… computers… the internet… and, soon enough, AI methods.

Read this:

“The speed with which [the new technology] is spreading through the world is one of the technological phenomena of our time… At the same time, educators everywhere are faced with the challenge of a rapidly growing school and college population and the need for a new approach to the content and methods of teaching. [This technology] may provide one of the answers to their problems.”

When was this written and what was it written about?



I’ll tell you later.

In 1983, Richard Clark, one of the founding contributors to ideas about technology-based instruction, wrote:

“Media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.”

Talking about the truck (a tool of delivery, the finger that points to the moon) is not only easier to do than talking about the groceries (actual educational outcomes), it also removes the knotty and uncomfortable problem of idiosyncratic talent and expertise from the equation.

And, to make matters worse, the educational technology evangelists are pushing the idea of teacher-neutral automation as a way to deal with the (admittedly real)  financial crisis in maintaining higher education. This will end up with a class-based distinction in the value and quality of an education, and we ought to simply acknowledge and admit it and make the best of it, or we ought not to do it. But really, we should not be so delusional.

The quote, by the way, is from a 1960 UNESCO report:

“The speed with which television is spreading through the world is one of the technological phenomena of our time… At the same time, educators everywhere are faced with the challenge of a rapidly growing school and college population and the need for a new approach to the content and methods of teaching. Television may provide one of the answers to their problems.”

Just look how well that worked out.

A Complete Life Cycle


SSG2017The 2016-17 leaders in the University of Michigan Structured Study Group (SSG) program for Organic Chemistry, Feb 2017, wishing me a happy birthday from the dinner I could not attend because I was out of town [l to r: James, Jenny, Jack, Danny (middle), Mike (back), Thomas, Charles (front)]

The Chinese people believe that when a person reaches the age of 60, he or she has completed a full cycle of life, which calls for a grand celebration. The history of the 60th birthday is based on Chinese astrology. Twelve animals symbolize astrological signs. The Chinese calender is based the 12 signs and the five natural elements: metal, fire, water, earth and wood.

This 5×12 math results in a 60-year cycle.

Following the 60th birthday, the person begins a new life.

The 60th birthday celebration is marked by special food items, such as noodles and peaches, both representing a long life. During the festivities, adult children, grandchildren and friends come together to show appreciation and give presents. Money, flowers and cakes are common gifts. The larger the family, the bigger the celebration.

I developed, and have been running, the SSG program since 1994-95. SSG1995A
The 1994-95 SSG leaders, Dec 1994 [l to r: Deb, me, Doug, Matt, Sarah, Vidya, Adrian (Marc Feldman, who was missing from the dinner, died tragically in a skiing accident over spring break, two months later; I always regret that Marc missed this dinner)]

In the Chinese tradition, people generally only celebrate every 10 years following their 60th birthday.

Will the People with the Carrots repeat the Same Mistake?

Setting aside the failed efforts to take on the failings of graduate education over the last 20 years, some of which efforts were pretty high profile, the National Academy of Sciences  has been wading in this pool, now, for a couple of years.

Their collective hearts and minds are in the right place, but this group only knows one way to do business, namely: convene a bunch of people around an agenda, gather what is known, make a recommendation for a funding program, create a call for proposals along with a new funding initiative at places like the National Science Foundation, and then (at least in the first round) fund those same people who were gathered and wrote the recommendations.

This system has worked pretty well for basic science programs since its introduction in the 1940s, which was inspired by the revolutionary success of the Manhattan Project: let’s tackle high speed computing, sustainable energy, cancer, and so on. It has not worked so well for the social science aspects of science, particularly education.

Social reform driven by an influx of funding is extremely difficult to sustain because it becomes a thing to go to get and spend money on, when you should be doing it well in the first place.

Social reform is not doing science. When you do not know something in science, you fund its discovery, and after a while, you have either discovered it or you cut bait and move on to something else.

Social reform means (broadly speaking) that we are doing something wrong with the resources we have and we (rather simply) need to start doing them right. A necessary goal is cultural change.

You should not need to bribe someone to not do something bad (back in the old country, that is called extortion and protectionism).

My deep fear is that this recent activity will result in the same outcome that has always come from this group. They will revert to form and start offering big juicy carrots to create the same white elephants of systemic curriculum reform that have emerged from these one-trick ponies again and again (never let it be said that I do not know how to mix a metaphor). The universities will create new programs and agree to carry them out with the promise of continued funding, but the core bad behaviors will not change.

Interestingly, those places most in need of shaking up (the high-powered research institutions who are fighting over access to the money) are exactly the places that tap the money keg to the greatest extent and have the greatest number of students who are affected.

And that, my friend, is what we call leverage. Two can and should play at this game. The wheel may be crooked, but it is the only game in town. 

The people with the carrots need to think about their sticks. They can fix this whole thing overnight with no incremental costs and no bloody new funding initiative to do what we should be doing in the first place, namely, a responsible job at educating students and preparing them for their professional futures.

The NAS needs to stand up and say no more bribes for just doing your job, and no rewards for not having done it.

They can accomplish their goal in a one statement initiative that is issued by the funding agencies. All of them.

Starting three years from now, you need to demonstrate, convincingly and up front, that you, your department or unit, and your institution are committed to the holistic cause of responsible and morally sound graduate education. If we are not convinced, we do not fund your grant requests.

You can use up to 15% of the Indirect Costs you are collecting from us to put towards efforts to support and improve graduate education.

And remember: this really matters, because in three years your convincing demonstration will be as prerequisite to funding as having hired an excellent cadre of clever researchers. And do not forget that you must demonstrate that you have done something convincing and sustainable at all three levels: at your institutions, in your departments or units, and in your research groups.

Sincerely Yours,
The People with All the Carrots

Meeting Mrs Smith

If you are obsessive about details, you might want to refresh yourself on the Mrs. Smith story from 2010, which is elsewhere on this site.

A meeting almost 50 years in the making!

The synopsis: I have always included my 6th grade science experience with Mrs. Marie Smith, who ended up leaving near the end of that year, for motivating some of my early interest in science. In particular, she used quite imaginative and engaging classroom methods, memorable (truly, I remember) in and of themselves, but more so for the striking difference upon walking into that classroom the day after she left and everything interesting had left the room. One part of the story I have told for years and years was how I associated her move back to California with her going to Santa Rosa because, in elementary school, I was a huge fan of “Peanuts,” and Charles Schulz’s home location in Santa Rosa was something I definitely knew of at the time.

Did I ever mention that I met Schulz, once, and he bought me lunch at the Snoopy Ice Arena (August 1997)? I was a tongue-tied idiot the entire time we were together.


But I digress.

Marie Smith and her family do live in northern California, and on my last visit to San Francisco, she and her daughter came over to SF and met me for dinner.

So cool.

We revisited the details of the story, and conversations have a way of ferreting out nasty little details that lengthy email messages or phone calls do not.

I started 6th grade in September 1967.

Marie’s then-new husband, Rick, joined the US Army Agency in 1966 – a civilian government agency that audits army installations. Marie had just graduated from San Francisco State College with a biology degree. He was assigned to Boston, and during that 1966-67 year, looking for work, she took two fast-track teacher certification courses at the University of New Hampshire and a workshop on project-based learning at Harvard. At some point in the year, she applied for and got the position as one of three 6th grade teachers in the newly opened elementary school in my home town (1966-67, when I was in 5th grade, was the first occupancy of the building). During the Spring/Summer of 1967, Rick and Marie moved to my home town, from Boston.

Their life together in rural NH was quite short-lived. School started in September 1967… and in October 1967, Rick was drafted into the real Army… did his basic training at Ft. Knox and was then assigned to Ft. Campbell, KY. She made the request to leave her position as my (and, well, others’) 6th grade teacher, to be with Rick before he potentially shipped out. The school district approved, and she left in April 1968 after being separated from him most of the year.

My recollection of a few of her classroom designs was spot-on. I really did recall (in particular) activities related to pendular motion and understanding exponential growth.

You might have noticed, though, that she did NOT return to California, and there had never been a Santa Rosa connection (they were from the Oakland/Berkeley/SF area). This conversation was the first time that recollection was ever challenged.

And wait, it gets more interesting.

After Kentucky, Rick was transferred to Ft. Wainright in Fairbanks, Alaska, in September 1968, as I was starting 7th grade (Junior High).

Rick got out of the army in December 1969, half-way through my 8th grade class. And believe me, I am pretty sure I was not yet reflecting on my 6th grade experience with Mrs. Smith, nor was I in touch with anyone who could possibly have known where she was.

I say that because the month after he got out, in January 1970, Rick and Marie moved to (wait for it) Santa Rosa, where they had a home until 2002.

It was not until 2010 when someone challenged me to track her down. That story is down below.

Now you can queue up the Twilight Zone music.

The best explanation I can come up with that does not involve communicating with my younger self through time (although I am not ruling it out), would be (a) it might well have been known that “the new teacher” had come from California and (b) I really WAS a Peanuts fanatic (even drawing a regular Peanuts strip for the 6th grade “newspaper”) and so because all things California began and ended with Charles Shultz in Santa Rosa, so perhaps these wires crossed, permanently, and I just tagged her as going there. It is then simply a coincidence that they ended up living there, after all.

Go figure.

Here she is, from 1967-68.
MarieSmith I’ll dig up my picture from 1968…

And here we are in 2016, having last actually seen one another in April 1968.
Me and Marie Bauer Smith.

My fashionable SF hoodie purchased in Chinatown earlier that day because it was freaking cold in SF.
We were accompanied by Marie’s daughter, Lisa.

Teaching in Shanghai 2016

SJTU student leads a discussion at the board.

Summer School at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (July 11-21, 2016)

In recent years, a number of universities in China have been offering their students intensive, English-language and discipline-based short courses during brief 2-4 week summer terms.

I have been collaborating with Nanjing University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University to help identify highly qualified instructors for these courses. This year, the Zhiyuan Honors College at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) offered a pair of such courses during July.

Notably, SJTU offered tuition-free enrollment to U-M students who wished to attend these classes. Moreover, the topical areas (An Introduction to Chemical Biology and Bio-Organic Reaction Mechanisms, and Nano-Materials Chemistry) are precisely the intermediate elective courses that have been challenging for the U-M chemistry department to offer due to enrollment demands in the basic program. A group of six U-M students joined the 26 SJTU students who were registered for these classes.

The Chemical Biology course was team taught by me and a former U-M post-doc, Professor Jean-Paul Desaulniers, who is currently on the faculty at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, while the Nano-Materials course was taught by Professor Thomas Seery from the University of Connecticut.

Old School schooling at SJTU.

UM student Zohaib Siddiqi collaborating with his SJTU counterparts on some chemistry questions.

Nanjing Tournament 2016

Sheffield student Amy Smith (l) and Michigan student Mike Payne (c) work on the inorganic chemistry challenge under the watchful gaze of an evaluator.

10th Biennial National Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratory Tournament (July 6-10, 2016)

“We need to do everything we can to promote excellence in experimental chemistry because only through doing the best science can we solve some of the world’s most vexing problems,” says Peking University Professor Lianyun Duan, one of the original architects of China’s National Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratory Tournament, which not only celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, but also hosted two teams of foreign student participants for the first time.

Held at the new Xianlin campus of Nanjing University from July 6-10, 2016, the competition drew teams of three students, all rising seniors, from 43 campuses all over China, as well as over 200 faculty members who held a concurrent conference to share ideas about laboratory teaching. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and the University of Sheffield, UK, were invited to send teams of students who participated fully as honorary guests, but who were not included in the final ranking.

Professor Chengjian “CJ” Zhu, from Nanjing University, was one of the chief organizers of the 2016 competition. “The design of this tournament sends a powerful message about fairness, the true spirit of competition, “ says Zhu, “and getting at the underlying question of how Chinese universities are doing in the laboratory education of their students. Another intent we have for this tournament is to continue to encourage our best students to pursue their scientific career interests. ”

When I heard about the design of this tournament from CJ, a few years ago, I knew I just had to be there to see this in action. He graciously invited me to keynote the opening, and was the driver behind inviting the two teams of foreign students.

The tournament’s design is noteworthy and not something we would likely see being used in the United States. The teams are selected at random, from a large list of candidates sent in by each school, and the laboratory assignments on which they are tested are also assigned at random (and only 30 minutes before the actual competition). Students are kept anonimous throughout the competition so that bias about the school of origin is eliminated.

The foreign students had an appropriately eye-opening experience.
Chengjian “CJ” Zhu and me, standing in the central control room of the Nanjing University teaching laboratories.