The three judges shuffle papers around as they intently pore over the profiles of the 12 hopefuls in the Student of the Year Science and Mathematics category. It seems a close call on paper, but the winner is decided depending on how the candidates present themselves in the face-to-face interview.
The judges want all-rounders, not just specialists in a field. Paulina Chan Shuk-man, director of the Hong Kong Science Museum, is happy to see that this year’s finalists are interested in a wide range of subjects, including maths, robotics, and biology.
“I want to test their knowledge on a higher level and see if they had interdisciplinary knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics in Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], and broader vision. Some have it and some don’t,” Chan said.
The judges aren’t just looking for academic all-rounders, either – they want well-rounded people in general, and they will throw unexpected questions at candidates to get a feeling for who they really are. Li Kwing-ho, from Diocesan Boys’ School, said he was surprised by the judges’ questions.
“I expected questions about my research and achievements. My past. They asked questions about my future,” he said. “They were hypothetical, ‘what if’ questions,” Kwing-ho recalled, saying he had to think hard when asked if he would choose HK$1 billion or a Nobel Prize.
“The recognition would be great, but I could do more to advance scientific research with HK$1 billion,” he told the judges.
Chua Kong-ho, South China Morning Post’s technology editor and also a judge, said it’s a good thing that more candidates are interested in social projects and solving real-world problems this year. “When you’re young it’s the best time to have big dreams,” he said.
As for Chan, she wanted to know what the students thought about Stem education in Hong Kong and if it is really letting people down. “I wanted to hear from the users what we are doing wrong and get their unique perspective,” she said. “I wanted to understand their thought processes.”
And it was this sort of question that made an impact on Cho Sui-ching, who was asked how she would advise the chief executive on improving Stem education in Hong Kong. “The questions were more difficult than in other competitions. They wanted our own opinion, not copied answers,” the Good Hope School student said.
“It was inspiring. I didn’t think about those aspects [of education] before. It made me rethink what education is for,” she added, pointing out that people study just to get good grades under the city’s exam-oriented education system.
Her passion for science began after reading a Japanese book series, Sword Art Online, where the characters are trapped in a virtual reality game. “I wanted to make it a real thing,” she said.
She saw friends and classmates lose their enthusiasm for science because of their poor exam results. She said people being discouraged from studying science is bad for society. “I’m here because I’m successful within the system and have a little bit of talent for exams,” she said.
Sui-ching advised future candidates to be honest. “No matter how you prepare, the judges will surprise you. Just tell them about yourself.”
Kwing-ho echoed that advice. “Having ability and achievements are part of the basics. To stand out, tell them what you learned and what your goals are.”
The Student of the Year Awards competition is organised by the South China Morning Post and Young Post, and sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Edited by M. J. Premaratne