The Natural Science Foundation of China funded undergraduate students for the first time

China Newsweek reporter/Yang Zhijie

Published in the 2023th issue of China Newsweek magazine on September 9, 25

In early August, Zhang Chenyang, a prospective senior at Tsinghua University, received a notice from the college that he would participate in the selection of the Basic Research Project for Young Students of the Natural Science Foundation Committee (hereinafter referred to as the Young Student Program) on August 8, and he could choose any topic, as long as the basic research related to natural sciences, and the project period was 8 or 22 years.

As the most important funding channel for basic research in China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (hereinafter referred to as the Natural Science Foundation of China) has included undergraduate students in its talent funding system for the first time, which has attracted attention. In late August, the Natural Science Foundation of China held the first Young Student Program Review Meeting in Beijing and Hefei, and as a pilot, outstanding undergraduate students from eight universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, and University of Science and Technology of China (hereinafter referred to as USTC), were recommended for interviews.

China Newsweek learned that up to now, the evaluation and selection of the project has been completed, and those who pass the selection can receive 10,<> yuan of scientific research funds. According to the official website of the Intelligent Research Laboratory of the University of Science and Technology of China, an undergraduate student of the laboratory has received relevant funding. When the project was first announced, it also raised questions in the scientific community: Are undergraduates capable of doing good research?

On August 8, Peking University welcomed the 19 undergraduate freshmen. Photo/Zhongxin

Who gets the grant?

Chenyang Zhang is an undergraduate student in Tsinghua University's first "Qiangji Program", which was launched in 2020 to select students with excellent overall quality or top-notch basic research. Soon after enrollment, Zhang Chenyang tried to carry out a scientific research project in the field of ancient building restoration that he was interested in under the encouragement of his supervisor, and he spent most of the year investigating and experimenting, and as the first author, published the research results of the topic in the domestic core journal "Chinese Journal of Geotechnical Engineering". This experience opened up a new world for Zhang Chenyang, "This result made me very satisfied, I began to find the process of doing scientific research and solving problems very interesting, which is very different from learning in the classroom."

During his time in school, he has participated in many projects to fund undergraduate scientific research, such as Tsinghua University's "College Student Academic Research Promotion Program" and "Spark Program", as well as the national college student innovation and entrepreneurship training program. In July 2021, after Zhengzhou was hit by extreme rainstorms, Zhang decided to turn to research on flood forecasting and early warning. This is also the theme of Zhang Chenyang's application project in this young student project.

Over the years, the Natural Science Foundation of China has built a funding chain for talent projects, including "Youqing", "Jieqing", and innovative research groups, but the funding targets are all scholars engaged in scientific research. Putting the talent funding portal forward is a new reform of the Natural Science Foundation of China this year.

In May this year, the Natural Science Foundation Committee had a preliminary idea, and in June, Dou Xiankang, Secretary of the Party Group and Director of the Natural Science Foundation Committee, led a team to Tsinghua University, Peking University and other universities to investigate. In an exclusive interview with China Newsweek in early July, Dou Xiankang mentioned that during their research, they noticed that there are indeed some undergraduate students in colleges and universities who have spare ability, scientific research interests and talents. He has also met students who have completed four years of coursework in just one and a half years, giving them more time to do research. From the perspective of talent growth law, early detection and targeted cultivation of outstanding young talents will help them stand out as soon as possible and achieve rapid development in the future, and can also provide "source living water" for the construction of high-quality basic research talent teams.

The speed of the project was unexpected by many. In July, the young student project was officially approved, and in August, the Natural Science Foundation Committee organized a meeting to review. "We completed all the evaluation work by the end of August, so that we could complete the project approval and funding in September, so that students can start working on projects and devote themselves to project research at the beginning of the new semester." Dou Xiankang said.

Dou Xiankang said that the project is still in the pilot stage, and the Natural Science Foundation Committee hopes to be smaller in scope and less and more precise, so it adopts a "recommendation + review" model, and all students participating in the evaluation are selected by universities in accordance with relevant requirements. However, at the same time, in order to allow outstanding students to have the opportunity to develop and support, there is no quota for the assessment, and applicants with outstanding performance can be funded. On August 8, Zhang Chenyang went to the office building of the Natural Science Foundation of China to participate in the selection, and he noticed that there were about thirty or forty students from Tsinghua University and Peking University.

The selection of undergraduate projects is different from that of the Natural Science Foundation of China "Jieqing" and "Youqing" projects. According to reports, in the evaluation of the young student project, students must present the project within the specified 8 minutes and answer the questions of experts within the remaining 17 minutes. Dou Xiankang once mentioned to China Newsweek that college students do not need to state scientific research results like "Jie Qing", and some students' questions may not be mature, but the judges can generally see whether the students' scientific foundation is solid and whether they have enthusiasm for science - this is an indispensable quality for scientific research.

Pan Chong, Dean of the School of Aeronautical Science and Engineering, Beihang University, is one of the experts in the evaluation of the young student program. He condenses the criteria for judging students into one: whether students have the ability to ask questions. In the question exchange session, he will discuss with the students why he did this topic, whether the question is raised by himself or the tutor, "Maybe most students still discuss with the tutor and jointly raise the question, after all, they are still young, they still have to take classes, and it is not easy to do this in a short period of time in a new field."

Pan Chong told China Newsweek that most of the students participating in the review were sophomores and juniors. He remembers that some students studied urban planning and management, used new tools to do big data analysis of regional economic heat, and evaluated regional economic vitality, "This is a topic that is partial to social sciences, but I am deeply impressed that in the process of migrating from the field of management to the direction of mathematics and science, new problems in interdisciplinary fields have been unearthed." Another student studied the stability of gravitational wave antenna devices, hoping to solve existing technical problems by designing new engineering and software.

In addition, unlike previous project reviews, the NSFC suggested that the judges should discuss with students through communication rather than defense, "to inspire and guide them as much as possible and stimulate their interest in scientific research." When Pan Chong communicates with these children, he can feel that they all have a good theoretical foundation, but they also need more and broader academic exchange opportunities.

When Zhang Chenyang applied for relevant scientific research projects before, he was mostly asked about the professional knowledge of the subject, and the supervisors in the university also communicated with him about the details of the plan. At the review site, seven or eight experts asked about 10 questions, including basic knowledge, research experience, scientific research plans, etc., and some teachers gave him suggestions on research ideas. "I wanted to study flash flood warnings in northern China and then extend the experience to the whole country, and a teacher suggested that I could do experiments across the country and then come up with good methods." This and my research are two different ways of thinking that can give me some inspiration. ”

In addition, what needs attention is how to select students who are really interested in scientific research, so that young student projects do not become the "hat" of undergraduates? According to Mu Rongping, a researcher at the Institute of Science and Technology Strategy Consulting of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, some talent funding projects have become "hats", which has nothing to do with the funding itself, the problem is that subsequent employers use these funding as a precondition for talent admission or evaluation. Funding outstanding undergraduate students to do scientific research may not be a precondition for guaranteeing graduate students, which may help the selection of talents for young student projects.

Can undergraduates do good research?

The 11 students in the review team that Pan Chong participated in applied for projects that were very difficult, and "it was difficult to make a complete solution in a short period of time", but Pan Chong did not expect these students to issue a few papers or patents in two years, or push the research problem to a new level. In his view, the real value of the Young Student Program lies in the fact that students can be trained in the scientific research paradigm and can be more determined to participate in scientific research in the future. Mu Rongping pointed out to China Newsweek that the establishment of this project by the Natural Science Foundation is also in line with the law of scientific research, and students participating in basic research need to participate in more academic conferences, communicate with excellent peers closely, and improve their thinking ability to solve scientific problems.

According to reports, on August 8, the day before the review of the young student project, the Natural Science Foundation Committee invited Pan Jianwei, academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Luo Yi, executive director of the Department of Chemical Physics of the University of Science and Technology of China, and other scientists to give academic reports for the undergraduate students participating in the review. Dou Xiankang said, "In the future, we will provide them with more opportunities to participate in comprehensive high-end scientist forums, hoping to let top scholars at home and abroad communicate with outstanding undergraduates face-to-face, give reports, talk about experiences, and talk about their feelings, and inspire and guide them to embark on the road of scientific research." ”

Mu Rongping told China Newsweek that from the perspective of scientific research laws, different disciplines are different, and in the field of basic theoretical disciplines such as mathematics and physics, many scientists at home and abroad have made outstanding achievements at a young age. At present, the young student project is still piloted, the number of selected students is small, the funding amount is low, and the total may not be as large as a large project of the Natural Science Foundation Committee. If you can select students who are really interested in scientific research, it is a good attempt, and the outside world can give more tolerance.

Pan Chong has more than 10 years of teaching experience, and is also responsible for the school's teaching reform planning and scientific research development. In his view, the young student program is a "banner" and signal, that is, the country attaches importance to the coordinated development of education, science and technology, and talents, which can guide more university administrators to think about talent training at the undergraduate level.

Pan Chong pointed out to China Newsweek that the courses of domestic universities at the undergraduate and even master's levels are mostly imparting known knowledge, and there are fixed classes in a semester, and what content is taught in each class will be planned in advance, and finally teach students a set of systematic knowledge. It is only when students actually enter the study of a topic that the transition to exploring the unknown begins. He hoped that the process would be brought forward.

As early as 2005, the famous "Qian Xuesen's question" was proposed. Today, how to cultivate top-notch innovative talents is still a common challenge faced by Chinese universities. Pan Chong noticed that some undergraduates, even master's students, lack scientific research training, and it is difficult to write a paper that people can read. In his view, China's basic education, undergraduate courses, practical equipment, etc. in some universities are not bad, but at the postgraduate level, there will be a significant gap between China and top foreign universities. In top foreign universities, most natural science courses are required to write papers or reports at the end of the course, and students need to think, investigate, and explore the unknown on the basis of the classroom knowledge system, but most courses in domestic universities are still known content.

Mu Rongping believes that what is more important behind the young student project is how colleges and universities should reverse the learning and thinking habits of undergraduates, from memorizing answers to discovering and exploring problems.

Lu Xiaodong, a researcher at Peking University's School of Education, has been following undergraduate research for many years, and in his view, the funding of undergraduates by the Natural Science Foundation of China is not new, but a new funding channel. Over the past two decades, many Chinese universities have successively supported undergraduate students with spare ability to participate in scientific research, and the traditional impression that "doctoral is the entry stage of scientific research" is actually a misunderstanding.

Taking Peking University as an example, in 1998, Li Zhengdao set up a "government fund" to introduce the scientific research model of American research universities into China, and then Peking University established a set of management system with "research courses" as the core, incorporating undergraduate scientific research into formal courses, and relevant funding includes "government fund", "president's fund" and "Mao Yugang fund". Peking University's "research program" requires that applicants should be sophomore undergraduates, and their GPA should be in the top 30% of the college. At the same time, the course is standardized and managed, requiring students to ensure that they invest enough time, and have requirements for the mid-term and final of the project.

Pan Chong introduced that from 2021, Beihang will carry out a pilot scientific research classroom, for undergraduate sophomores and juniors, each pilot college will open a scientific research class, as an elective course, accounting for 2 credits, and require key laboratories at the provincial and ministerial level or above to invest certain experimental conditions to support students. Pan Chong mentioned that compared with the traditional classroom, the scientific research classroom is open, and students may be facing the most cutting-edge science and technology in a certain field, and they can do experiments, research or theoretical formula derivation. There is no standard answer to this process, and the most important thing for students is to learn the research paradigm, cultivate the ability to conduct literature research, independently design operational experiments, and write experimental reports.

"We have been piloting for three years, and about 3% of Beihang undergraduates have taken scientific research classes, and I obviously feel that the undergraduate students have significantly improved their graduation design level after preliminary training." Pan Chong told China Newsweek. Lu Xiaodong once encountered some undergraduates who quit midway due to lack of interest when doing scientific research projects. There are also students who have participated in short-term laboratory projects in different disciplines, and many teachers have found that these students are seriously involved in each project, and they gradually define the direction of future research in the process, even if they do not produce tangible research results, which are also valuable.

Compared with China, top foreign research universities began to encourage undergraduate students to do research earlier. As early as 2000, Lu Xiaodong visited the United States to investigate the management of first-class universities, focusing on the undergraduate education of the University of California, Berkeley. As a research university, Berkeley attaches great importance to undergraduate research, even as an important part of undergraduate education. Since the 1990s, the university has set up special funds to fund undergraduate research and in 1997 established the Undergraduate Research Office, specializing in organizing and serving student research, in addition to providing some project application information, but also through lectures, to help students understand what research is, how to write project applications, draft reports, etc. In addition, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and many other American research universities have established relevant institutions and programs to support undergraduate students in scientific research.

The undergraduate stage is a critical period for the cultivation of academic aspirations. Lu Xiaodong noticed that many Peking University alumni who have risen to prominence in academia or returned to work as teachers, if you look at their resumes, have participated in research courses at the undergraduate level. In 2023, Professor Zhang Cheng of the School of Management of Fudan University and others published the article "The Impact of Undergraduate Research Projects on Individual Scientific Research Career Development-A Retrospective Cohort Study", which investigated the scientific research career development of undergraduate students and graduates of Fudan University in 2000~2017, and the final sample included 576 data. The study found that compared with students who did not participate in scientific research projects, the probability of undergraduate students who participated in related projects to graduate for doctoral studies increased by 14.1%, and the probability of choosing scientific research positions in formal jobs increased by 17.2%.

The article points out that the important reason is that early scientific research training promotes students' understanding of scientific research and cultivates students' self-confidence in the field. Zhang Cheng and others believe that the key to this is not simply to let students participate in the teacher's project, or simply pursue the publication of articles, but how the teacher guides the student to complete the task of scientific research, achieve the goal, and constantly build confidence in the process.

Relevant studies point out that domestic undergraduate scientific research projects have been carried out for many years, but the overall start is late, the coverage is narrow, the implementation effect of different universities is uneven, and relevant policies still need to be improved. Lu Xiaodong observed that in the past many years, some university administrators have also visited Peking University to investigate their experience, and in his view, the most important thing is that school administrators and teachers should first reverse the concept that step-by-step learning at the undergraduate level and problem-centered learning triggered by undergraduate research are not in conflict and will promote each other. Universities support undergraduate students to do scientific research, and they must first straighten out this problem. Secondly, relevant experts believe that by including undergraduate research into formal courses, students can transfer credits through assessment, which will help reduce the conflict between students' participation in scientific research and course learning.

In addition, expert analysis said that domestic universities need to invest more resources in undergraduate research. In China, except for some top universities, the scientific research work of undergraduates in most schools is assigned to the Academic Affairs Office, and relevant teachers lack enough energy and time to organize undergraduate scientific research, and some teachers also lack understanding of scientific research training at the undergraduate level, and it is difficult to undertake detailed guidance work. At UC Berkeley, in order to support faculty participation in students' research process, faculty will receive project assistance and small grants of 300~600 US dollars to partially cover the costs associated with student research.

How to motivate teachers to actively participate is crucial. In Lu Xiaodong's view, taking undergraduates to do research does require more energy from teachers. Some colleges and universities can give priority to selecting some outstanding teachers who are willing. Teachers should also think clearly about the value and significance of this matter, undergraduate scientific research courses can play their true value in the process of cultivating top-notch innovative talents, but they are not achieved overnight.

(Zhang Chenyang is a pseudonym in the text)

China Newsweek, Issue 2023, 36

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