Students from China’s Shandong University Spend a Year with Duke Physics

Tuesday, June 4, 2013
“Life here is really busy, but colorful,” says Xiaqing Li, one of five physics majors from Shandong University in China who spent the 2012-2013 academic year at Duke. The students lived on West Campus and took physics classes, electives, and did independent study research. While the five students had five different experiences, they all agree they enjoyed choosing their own classes and schedules, being immersed in a foreign culture, and experiencing new ways of learning. “I think it’s good to study abroad and have a different experience,” says Xiaomeng Jia. “I learned a different culture, a different kind of lifestyle, and a different way of thinking. And I introduced my way of thinking to my friends as well. It’s the best experience in my life up to now.” This was the first year that Shandong students studied at Duke; in the fall three more students from Shandong will follow in their footsteps. In addition, two physics students from Wuhan University will spend fall term here. Wuhan University is the partner university for Duke Kunshan University (DKU), Duke’s campus in China. “As a university, we have a strategy for making new connections to China,” says Prof. Robert Calderbank, dean of natural sciences and professor of computer science, math, and electrical and computer engineering. “Part of that strategy is making good connections with places like Shandong University that are top-tier Chinese universities. We’re really excited about this opportunity to bring some of their very best students to Duke.”
The idea originated at the 2011 U.S-China Hadron Workshop in China when Prof. Haiyan Gao was approached by a physics professor from Shandong’s incredibly selective Taishan honors college. “He said they really wanted to provide extraordinary opportunities to their students and they really wanted to have better connections with prestigious [foreign] universities,” Gao says. “He said, ‘Is this something you can help with?’” Gao, who is on the China Faculty Council, talked to Calderbank and several other deans about the idea of having Shandong physics students spend a year at Duke, and was met with enthusiastic support. Prof. Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs and associate vice provost for undergraduate education says, “We wanted to support the relationship with that university, and support our faculty members like Haiyan Gao, and bring really smart students in. It all lined up.” Later that fall, Calderbank visited Shandong’s honors college and gave a talk to students. “I talked for about 45 minutes and for the next 45 minutes these students just peppered me with questions in perfect English,” he says. “I was just blown away. I was very, very impressed.” Turning the idea into reality was, as Gao says, a “complicated interaction” involving everything from interviewing and selecting the students to spelling out financial agreements. Gao says key support during the planning phase came from Steve Nowicki , dean and vice provost of undergraduate education. “In the end, I was just glad everything worked,” she says. “The provost’s office was very supportive.” The students are funded by Shandong University, Duke, and the Chinese government. While at Duke, the Shandong students took three physics classes a semester including an independent study with a professor in an area of their interest. Although physics is physics no matter the language, the students found there’s more than one way to teach it and learn it. For one thing, the Chinese students say that at Duke they spent less time in class but more time on homework compared to Shandong University. And homework here often required creative problem-solving that led to insights not necessarily presented by the professor in lecture. Another difference is how students do their homework. “Students here have the spirit of studying together and of course our professors encourage that,” Jia says. “Sometimes you benefit even more from your classmates because they are all a similar level as you and may have a breakthrough for how to describe it to you. Actually the efficiency is higher if you study in a group. . .  so long as you don’t talk about movies!” The students also say that asking questions in class or seeking help from professors outside of class is a bigger part of the learning process here than in China. Each student also took a couple of non-physics classes, exploring subjects as varied as Latin, psychology, logic, music appreciation, tennis, and swimming. Yuchen Zhao says he “accidentally” took a modern dance class taught by Prof. Barbara Dickinson, which ended up being one of his favorite experiences. At first he was flummoxed by theoretical discussions about the meaning and experience of dance, but he enjoyed learning new dance styles and working with the other students, many of whom were “excellent” dancers. For the final group project, Zhao worked with some of his classmates to choreograph an original four-minute dance. He says,“I didn’t know any dancing steps so I added martial arts, which I did in my home university.” Zhao found the group creative process thought-provoking: he says the dance developed layer by layer as they continually refined the whole thing, in contrast to a scientific project, which proceeds step by step with each step being dependent on the completion—and accuracy—of the previous one. “That’s the power of the liberal arts,” says Baker. “We want to make sure they take a class they couldn’t take back home, not just math and physics. We’re glad we empower these students to broaden and stretch their knowledge acquisition.” While all of the students excelled academically, the year wasn’t all work and no play. They visited nearby stores and restaurants, traveled to Washington and New York, and were invited home for Thanksgiving by Gao and other professors. They also got to know Duke students. “They are very independent, more independent than I imagined, but they are really sociable. They really fancy the parties,” Li says. Yajing Huang says, “When they have fun, they just focus on having fun, not worry.” Two of the students returned to China after spring semester, while the other three will return home after continuing their research over the summer. One of them—Xiaojun Yao—will be returning to Duke Physics as a graduate student in the fall. With the first year a success, Gao is looking forward to welcoming more students from Shandong and Wuhan to Duke Physics in the fall. She’s also working to set up similar programs with two other Chinese universities: Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Nanjing University. And in the future, she hopes there will be opportunities for Duke students to study in China, as does Calderbank. He says, “There are more and more students showing up at Duke whose foreign language in high school was Mandarin. They spend time at Duke learning more Mandarin and they want to spend time in China.”
Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.