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Talented teens from China tackle global challenges at Fitzwilliam College on Ambright course

Talented teenagers from China tackled unexpected intellectual challenges at a problem-based learning (PBL) workshop at Fitzwilliam College.

Organised by Ambright Education Group, the three-day workshop tasked participants aged 15-18 to work in research teams late into the evening to polish their findings on the world's environmental problems before delivering presentations that earned praise from Professor David Cardwell, an organiser of the event.

The group at Fitzwilliam College
The group at Fitzwilliam College

Participants from Chinese cities and provinces including Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong, Jiangsu, Sichuan, Gansu and Hebei collaborated to search for scientific solutions to problem such as pollution, and received feedback to help them improve their work.

Prof Cardwell, a specialist in superconducting engineering and a fellow of Fitzwilliam College, called the pioneering Ambright programme as “a real success”.

He added: “The workshop will have given the students valuable insight into working in teams in a demanding academic environment.”

Dr Emilie Ringe, a lecturer in materials science and metallurgy and in earth sciences at the University of Cambridge, said: “The students at the PBL workshop were very engaged and eager to learn.It was a pleasure to teach them.”

Dr John Orr, a lecturer in engineering, said PBL could equip students with “lifelong skills” to tackle complex problems.

“PBL represents a shift away simply from knowing how to answer questions, to students knowing which questions to ask,” he added.

The Chinese students hard at work at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
The Chinese students hard at work at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

“The workshop held at Fitzwilliam College was the first time many students had experienced such a new learning method, and the evidence of their final presentations was that it has been a success.”

Dr John Biggins, a lecturer in engineering, said: “In this workshop, we really throw the students in at the deep end, asking them to be creative, and constructive team players. It was really gratifying to watch the students embrace this new way of learning.”

The students also declared the workshop, held from August 13-15, a success.

Wang Yidi, 18, from Chengdu, said: “The programme was intensive but rewarding, and I had the opportunity to know what it’s like to study in [the environment of] a world-leading university. They guided us through all difficulties we met but also pushed us to the limit.

“It was an extremely memorable experience at Cambridge.”

And Huang Xiaodi, 16, from Beijing, said the workshop helped her to understand a different learning methodology.

The Chinese students hard at work at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
The Chinese students hard at work at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Wang Tianruo, 17, from Yangzhou – a city in Jiangsu province known for its fried rice – said: “The PBL project taught me to study independently rather than listen to the teacher to inculcate knowledge. The trip was very rewarding.I’d like to come again if I get another chance.”

Wang Yiwei, 15, from the city of Shijiazhuang, said: “Through the PBL project, I learned to solve problems in a methodical way.And in the process of [collaborating] with my classmates, I learned how to co-operate with others efficiently.”

He added that the PBL workshop and academic tour – which featured visits to Oxford, Warwick, Reading, Bristol, York and Nottingham - had broadened his horizons.

When the students stopped at Oxford on August 11, they were treated to a tour of Oriel College with student ambassador and medic Euan McGivern.

Although the new Ambright tour focused on academic visits, demonstration lectures at leading universities and campus tours, there were cultural highlights such as a visit to Stonehenge and a surprise stop at Windsor Castle on the way to London Heathrow Airport.

They learned about cutting-edge 3D printing during an engineering tour at Warwick University and constructed a tower from spaghetti and marshmallows as part of a workshop on innovation at Bristol University. They also enjoyed lectures on business and psychology at Reading and talks on architecture at Nottingham.

Student Huang Xiaodi said: “I hope I can come back and realise my college dream in two years.”

Students on the Ambright Education Group course at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (15965487)
Students on the Ambright Education Group course at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (15965487)

Sean Zhang, the president of Ambright Education Group, said a major challenge for many students from a Chinese educational background was that they had not adequately cultivated critical thinking skills or their ability to grapple with real-life problems.

He added that traditional education and Chinese universities’ admissions systems focus heavily on test results.

Mr Zhang said: “Ambright Education Group is overturning traditional methods with this pilot PBL programme.

“This year’s encouraging results suggest that students have been able to make impressive progress within several days at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.”

He added that Ambright would definitely offer the PBL workshop in future years.

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