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Strolling on the Moon

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"...inspire innovations ...": The sign's call to action

If you happen to be in Beijing with a seven year-old and you think that it's too cold/hot/windy/polluted to visit the zoo, the Fragrant Hills, or one of the many public parks (as it tends to be most weekends of the year), then you could do much worse than to head for the Science and Technology Museum (just east of the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium).  From a distance, the cavernous structure that houses the museum looks like it has been built by a giant child using toy bricks.  Then again, there may be those who prefer the description on the official website: "The embodiment of the intrinsic correlations between man and nature as well as science and technology." 

  Keen to find out more about these "intrinsic correlations" (and also to escape the painfully cold north wind) I paid the 80 yuan admission price for the two of us, and hurried inside.  My first impression was that I had entered the same giant-child's play room: a dizzying combination of space and scattered games and activities.  The action was on five levels, each with its own theme and vibe: The "Children's Science Paradise" section was the first port of call.  Then we moved on to "Exploration and Discovery", "Science, Technology and Life", "Innovation and Harmony" and last but by no means least, "The Glory of China".

  Wherever we went, there were lots of things for the eager hands and inquisitive mind of a seven year-old to explore.  As interesting as my daughter found the exhibits, I couldn't help thinking that it was all a bit tame and rather pedestrian.  Perhaps I've spent too much time watching The Frizz... the red-haired, high-spirited science teacher who drives The Magic School Bus.  In every episode she implores her students to, "Take chances; Make mistakes" before venturing out to explore an exciting aspect of science. "Chances" and "Mistakes", however, seem to have no place in the Beijing Science and Technology museum, which presumably sticks tightly to the guidelines dictated by China's school-curriculum.  

  All of the activities on offer had predictable and certain results.  Take "The Amazing Journey of a Ball", one of the showcase exhibits, for example.  If you know about the Mouse Trap game, then imagine a giant roller-coaster version.  Or think about the Honda precision-engineering TV commercial... the one that demonstrates a chain reaction of car bits falling, ricocheting, and colliding... that eventually trigger the windscreen wipers.  In the Science and Technology museum version, kids are encouraged to set ball after ball in motion from different heights (select height A, B, or C); use compressed air to start stage 2 of the quest (one setting); and then propel the balls onwards and downwards (select force A, B, or C) to complete the circular journey.  Balls fly through the air, bounce off angled metal discs, land in wire baskets, swoop down chutes... all in a mesmerising blur.  But there wasn't a single ball that failed to make it round the circuit because a child had applied too little or too much force or taken too long or not long enough to pull a lever or press a button. 

  Then there was the "moon-walking" experience.  There was a 20 minute queue of excited youngsters waiting to take their turn.  But, hey, what's a 20 minute wait when you can come away thinking that you have walked in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong.  I remember the grainy, ethereal footage of Armstrong's moon-walking in 1969, when I was about the same age as my daughter.  I watched open-mouthed at Armstrong's antics as he performed the highest of high-wire circus acts that was a quantum leap beyond moon-walking.  It was full-on, no-holds-barred moon-leaping, or moon bunny-jumping, or moon-bouncing, or perhaps even moon-bounding.  He looked like a man that had taken his "giant leap" speech to heart.  He bounced for joy because he was thrilled to be there.  Boring-old "moon-walking" (NASA's preferred term), was presumably designed by PR gurus to make it appear less dangerous than it clearly was. 

  Cut to Beijing, 2010.   Each kid is weighed before being allowed to take her or his "maximum two minutes" turn on the contraption that is pictured below.  The weight  of the child determines how far the counter-balancing weight is moved back.  Thus, each child gets the same degree of movement.    But, no matter how hard you try to change the laws of physics (and goodness knows my daughter tried really hard) all you can do is move, very slowly, up a little, down a little, and sideways a bit.  No bouncing/leaping/bunny-hopping/bounding allowed apparently.  What is wrong with a "gravity joy-stick" to control your own elevation and bounciness for goodness sake.  I then noticed the Chinese characters stencilled on the side of the machine: "moon-stroller" (obviously designed with harmony in mind). 

  Talking of harmony:  The stated theme of the Science and Technology museum and the official translation of the yellow Chinese characters you see in the above photo is (I'm not making this up by the way): "To experience science and inspire innovations; to serve the general public and promote harmony".   It seems that every public building, every newsworthy project, every public statement, and every domestic policy that's written about in the China press (or appears as an official slogan) is designed to "promote harmony".  Which is all well and good of course.  Particularly when it is the result of innovation that has been inspired by a visit to the Science and Technology museum.  

  I am sure that the vast majority of the thousands of kids who visited today would have been genuinely excited by some of the things they saw.  I can't help thinking though that they would have been even more inspired had they been challenged to "Take chances" and "Make mistakes". 

  On the contrary, the Chinese education system instils the opposite philosophy into its teachers and students.  In the highly-competitive race to pass the gaokao (or college and university entrance exam) students will be made to learn several hundred "standard answers" by rote.  Neither the teacher nor student (both of whose career progression depend on getting high scores) will stray from carefully rehearsed responses to set questions.  The torture begins from an early age, because only the highest-scoring primary school kids can get into the best-scoring middle schools whose intake have the best chance of progressing to the best-scoring high-schools... which are, in turn, likely to groom the best gaokao scorers.  It's not surprising, then, that in a survey covering 21 countries, conducted by International Educational Progress Evaluation Organization, Chinese students finished (joint) bottom of the class in terms of their ability to use their imagination.  Nor is it a surprise that Chinese kids were top of the class in maths.  

  The China Daily, in a hard-hitting (for them) editorial said yesterday that "This global study should make us swing into action and help our students to throw open their young minds to imagination and creativity".  The article goes on to say that it is the parents' as well as the educators' responsibility to make kids use their imagination.  While I agree with this, I can't help feeling that it is the system that sets the agenda. Chinese parents feel that they have no choice but to focus their energy and hard-earned income on helping to improve their child's exam score.  Inevitably, the development of their child's imagination suffers as a consequence.

  Parents know that the kids who get to the best universities by dint of them achieving high gaokao scores – are likely to get on the fast-track to the best careers (in the fields of technology, government administration and business).   Many parents are not aware, however, that the really high-achievers in the exam the gaokao zhuangyuan (the top scorers, the ones that didn't make mistakes) are actually the serial under-achievers... Earlier this year, the China Daily reported that, "A survey that kept track of more than 1,000 top scorers from 1977 to 2008 found that none of the top [scorers] stood out in the field of academics, business or politics."  So there you have it... proof  if proof were indeed needed that those who never made a mistake never made anything.

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Strolling on the Moon