Seventeen years of reducing pressure for students in China

*This is the last post for the Contemporary Pedagogy class. I appreciate the skills learned in this class. Some of the methods discussed in this class are mind changing and give us the impression that learning is fun and easy. I myself had this thought that if I feel hard when I learn, then there must be something wrong with the instructor. Well, learning can be fun and easy, but not always. I write this post to remind myself and some of you who may have the same idea as mine that the easiness is not and should not be the goal of education.
When I was in middle school, a group of Japanese students visited our school and had some conversations with us. One of the students read a question from her manual, “I heard that Chinese students study very hard. How do you spend your day?” Since she asked that way, I tried my best to show how hard life is for a Chinese student. However, she looked disappointed. My life was somehow more comfortable than hers. Years later, I started to know that I was a part of a movement to reduce students’ academic pressure. The movement originated before I was born, and became an emergent order from the administration of education in the year 2000. The main idea was less course, less homework, and less exam. That movement started dramatically. I remember that in spring 2000, I did not have any homework. Then parents and schools realized that the more they followed the policy, the weaker they are in the standard graduation exam. Most schools started to act in the gray area as gray as possible to save their average score. It did not take long for the government to realize the schools’ counteract. More strict regulations and enforcement were released. There were limited innovations can be done on the school side, especially the public schools. The parents turned to private school or privately owned education institutions (companies). The household education costs kept increasing over the years although the tuition was low and still regulated by the governments.
The movement to reduce students’ academic pressure in China did not achieve its purpose. The students are still under great pressure. The reason is obvious. The life after school stays the same, if not harder. The regulations on schools hurt the middle-class families. Their kids still need to compete for the seats in colleges classrooms if they did not spend the costs on the private education institutes. The path to college for students from rural areas who could not afford the private education becomes narrower. The call for more ways for students to enter colleges was answered. Some students can bypass the Gaokao (the College Entrance Exam in China) by showing their talents in certain areas. However, those paths were taken as advantages more by students from wealthy families than by the financially poor students. Those results somehow violated most Chinese’ value of equal and fair education.
Learning, just like losing weight, is not always a pleasant experience.
The competitions are there. The learning loads do not seem to be decreasing as the society evolves. Reducing the quantity of learning is beyond the capability of most educators. I think the role of educators would be like fitness trainers, to ease the experience by showing them more scientific ways of doing it. When they do it right, they are stronger and more confident to do more. I guess that’s the value of pedagogy studies. As education researchers, we should not ignore the reasons for hard work. We should have the confidence to tell people what is need to be done instead of saying what they want to hear.

Teaching as acting

Bring Laptops to the class has been controversial since laptops became public affordable. In engineering classes, it becomes common that laptops are needed to help the students to solve problems. Laptops come a part of human’s “extended” brain, especially in the computer-aided design field. Professors start teaching students computer tricks and think these tricks are essential for future engineers. There are other voices believing that laptops in class will do worse than better. They draw the students’ attention away from the lectures. One example from Darren Rosenblum (Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom) shows that forbidding laptops in class improved the students’ engagement.

With new technologies, people tend to seek more efficient ways of doing things. Research papers follow a certain structure so that readers can grasp the information quickly. Authors put graphic abstracts at the beginning of papers. We read blogs on our way to the offices or homes. Still, the producing of blogs is always faster than our capacity of reading. It seems the time that we can spend on the internet is almost infinite. That fact makes people panic. It makes some people panic because they want to grab some time and it seems the queue ahead of them is just endless.

But, why should they wait? They can compete and win the time back.

There are certain things in this world cannot be accelerated, because time, itself, is an important property of those things. One most obvious example is music. You do not fast forward a piece of music because it will just destroy the piece.

I don’t see people clicking on their facebook or twitter in a movie theater, because they spent all their attention on watching the movies. I realized that watching movies is just as tiring as reading books. But they still concentrate, for that one and a half hours. A documentary is as informative as a college-level class, and there are a group of people spend time watching it. I foresee that some excellent educators are also good performers. An eye-catching class can be broadcasted as a movie. And the outsiders exist. They are immune to the class. We should acknowledge the existence of those students. Just like each movie has a target group of audiences.

The unnoticed assumption

I joined an Arabic music club last semester. I did not plan to do so. My original plan was to learn some music stuff. And in the meantime, my advisor was in that club called Itraab. Then I thought, why not? I started to play hand drums with time and learn how to sing Arabic songs. I didn’t expect the Arabic culture is so romantic until I understand those lyrics. I learned Chinese poems as I grow up. I read Jane Eyre when I was in high school. My experience with Arabic culture was limited. Then when I went to Itraab, I finally realized that love is also a great part of Arabic culture. It seems obvious when you think about it. But the thing was that I had not thought about it before this year. This reminds me of the podcast called “How ‘The Hidden Brain’ Does The Thinking For Us.” I live with many assumptions. I don’t even know many of them exist and they are guiding my behavior. They are there like air. I depend on them and I do not feel them.
Internationalization is unstoppable in the current era. Our education should prepare this generation and the following generations for the tide of global communication. When we encounter something that is beyond our understanding, we may want to revisit the basics and figure if we have some assumptions that are obviously wrong.

Teaching like cooking

From my understanding, a good cook must enjoy eating food; from my understanding, a good teacher must have his/her own way to master learning. Today I just realized that teaching is similar to making food.

I think anyone can make good food as long as there is enough care. I remember in one of the episodes in the anime series The best in Chinese (food), the young chef figured out one of the secret ingredients in his mom’s famous dish is love, the care of food and the customers. As is written in Shara Deel’s article, there is no universal method that can be applied by any educators for any situations. Enough care and devotedness can make much more difference than any teaching methods being used carelessly. I see many teachers and have been taught by many of them. I felt surprised when I knew that there are so many theories and techniques in pedagogy. Most of the teachers were professionally trained as teachers and they supposed to know these pedagogies. How Come many of them sucked in teaching? Then I realized that teaching is not like solving an engineering problem where, with enough proficiency, one can solve the problem in an autopilot mode. All great work includes full care. In the real world, not everything needs to be great. Good work in most cases can work fine. To make great food, the cook needs to devote all his/her attention to the food. There is a dish made of tofu. In that dish, a silk tofu was cut into slices and then further cut into shreds. The silk tofu is something that can be broken with a single touch. One can imagine how much effort should be put into making this dish. Are people amazed by the taste of this dish? Or maybe they feel the taste by feeling the care of the cook.



Like every cook has his/her own flavor, every educator has his/her own teaching style. It may take a while to figure out what the favorite food is and what the best food the cook can make. I taught a class which was recorded for students reviewing. I watched that video and found out that I did not have a deep voice and sounded like an experienced knowledgeable elder professor. I’m a young man. Why should I act as an elder professor? I gave a lecture last week and I asked one of my friends who was sitting in the class about how I did. He said you looked achievable and seemed knowing what you were talking about so we felt confident in you. It seems the feedback is OK. Maybe I should just reinforce what I am good at and try to fix or avoid what could cause problems.

Defending the old schools

It seems the fashion way of making impacts is to critique the old school and say something new. It is justifiable: things keep changing as time goes, and time keeps going. People destroy the old tools and inventing the new tools and call it a revolution. It’s an iteration. The old tools used to be some great inventions replacing their predecessors, and now it should be understood that they are replaced by the new generations.

The evolution is inevitable.

So is the evolution in education. I see many arguments talk about stopping the standard test. The old schools which look serious and hard on students should be changed into joyful places.No students should be blamed.

Here I want to kindly remind you that most tools can excel other tools for a certain purpose. We should acknowledge that competition always exists when resources are limited. And the truth is that the resources are always limited and certain resources are so limited that people can feel the lack of them. In a market,  a supplier, in most cases, won’t get the chance to tell the clients or customers not to buy sofas but to buy chairs because they can only make chairs. They can survive if there are no other competitors and the chair is needed. However, if the chairs market cannot make any profit, they may not survive. I treat the standard tests as requests from the clients, the education system. Education is important to everyone and the educational resources are limited. The standard tests are part of the approaches to grant the education resourced. It should also be noticed that there are always paths beside the ordinary ways for extraordinary students.

Let’s Play: Engaging Engineering Students with Web Games

Game is everywhere, in daily life

“My kids show no interest in anything but games.” This is a complaint I heard many times by frustrated parents from different countries. But why does this phenomenon exist and to some extent become a global issue?

The interest to play games is not the patent of humankind. Without the ability to make tools, baby lions play with each other to learn how to bite and fight. The fights among these young warriors are not serious but provide vivid scenarios that mimic the future battles.What cannot kill you makes you stronger. In another word, what kills you makes you die. Playing games offer them chances to regret and improve their skills for more serious work.

Go, a board game, was used by an ancient king to stimulate his son’s wisdom. It’s obvious to say “people learn from their own experiences.” Sometimes experience comes from the practice that causes non-invertible damages. A more efficient way of learning is to learn from others’ experience. Some educators take the abstraction from the knowledge and put them into games. The desire to play games, from my understanding, comes from the intuition of strategies to learn and to survive.


Game is somewhere, in class

My first experience of games in class was where the games served as rewards for behaving well. Years later, I found out that games can be used as exercising or teaching tools. One combination of game and math class was to type the correct answers of visually nicely wrapped equations. Animations appear after the correct answering the questions to serve as a rewarding.

These kinds of nicely wrapped math exercise were expanded by commercial games whose original objective was for recreation. Minecraft, a popular digital game, released an education edition in 2016. In Minecraft education edition, a teacher can create Non-Player Characters who can guide the students through the topics. Students can talk to each other in the game world. Portal 2 is a First-Person-Shooting-like game. Instead of fire bullets, the gun in the game can only open portals that can be used to transport characters. In this game, other than the magic portals, the mechanics are realistic. Some teachers used this game to teach physics. SimCity is a game with decades of history. The game producer claimed that they implemented the four-step model in the game. The four-step model is a model that is taught in traffic planning class to senior students. Dr. Trani, a professor at Virginia Tech, said he used that game to teach traffic planning ten years ago.

Other than commercial games, there are games developed by higher education educators. These kind of games are usually small size-wise. They are more like interactive modules for different topics. The professors or educators are the fittest people to get involved in the design and/or development of the educational games. However, only a few of them know how to develop games. Using games cannot replace the formal way of teaching now so other educators cannot devote too much time to exploring how to develop games. Even the educators who know how to build games will not focus on polishing their games because most of them are still busy in fulfilling their other duties and building games are not on their evaluation criteria.

Most of the professional game developers who can develop educational games only know knowledge in K-12 education. This is true because those developers’ professional training during their higher education is to build games! So it is hard to have good educational games for higher education.

What I have done

I’m in transportation engineering. It was my advisor’s idea to start developing educational games for this area. When I got the assignment from my advisor, I started to think about games’ role in education. Transportation engineering is a broad area. There are several topics, serving towards transportation, with low correlation under this area. But in general, knowledge on all these topics is needed in order to build transportation systems. I, therefore, builded five games for those topics.


  • Road Crush


The earliest topic in transportation engineering is on the road. People need to build strong enough roads to link between origins and destinations, and this need spawns the research in pavement design.

I designed a game called Road Crush for this topic. In this game, players can see different traffic scenarios (different traffic volume and compositions) in different levels. They will need to design the pavement for the given scenarios. The main design parameters in pavement design are thickness and material for each layer. The design will be achieved by dragging materials onto different layers and dragging each layers to change the thickness of them. Visual feedback of each layer of the pavement and quantitative feedback of each parameters will be offered to the players as they play the game. The players are given a certain budget. If the players do not design the pavement well, the game will show the road get crushed by the traffic.


  • Angry Curves


People realized that strong pavement does not guarantee safe driving. Different highway curvatures result in different cost and safety measure. The study of curvature design falls into the topic of highway design.

The game for highway curvatures design is called Angry Curves. In the game, if the player does not design the curvatures well, the curves will get angry and throw the vehicles away. In reality, if the engineers do not design the curvatures well, the vehicles will fall and may even actually throw themselves away. I introduced certain constraints in this game to make the world more complicated and in a sense closer to real problems.  


  • Transporters


After the construction of a road system, people found out that some roads have higher traffic than the others. They can save some money while still provide better performance if they can put more money to build stronger and wider roads for those with higher traffic need and save money from the roads with lower traffic need. The process that predicts the traffic needs before the design and construction falls into the topic of traffic planning.

The transporters game includes an algorithm that has been used in traffic planning practice. The algorithm is from a model called four-step model. As is written in the name, the four-step model has four steps. The Transporters game will guide the players through the steps in different levels. In the final level, the players have a more complicated planning task to do and they will need to think about all the steps in the planning model. The game will show a visual feedback of where the road will be congested to the players after their design.


  • DZ-Man


There are intersections because two routes may meet and they want to use the same piece of land. When the traffic from both routes is high, the intersection becomes complicated. At first traffic police need to stand at the intersections to guide traffic. Then, traffic lights were introduced to serve a similar function of traffic police. Sometimes people can see traffic lights turn yellow when they approaching the intersection. It’s a dilemma that they do not know whether to stop or continue. A good traffic control should minimize the chance of this case.

DZ-Man is based on the concept of dilemma zone. Dilemma zone is the zone where people will have this dilemma of deciding whether to stop or go. In this game, players will need to control the traffic lights. They can see the cars in dilemma zone turn red when they turn the traffic lights to yellow. Their goal is to minimize the number of cars in dilemma zone.


  • Time-Space Invaders


When there are two intersections close to each other, the vehicles arriving patterns of one intersection are impacted by the signal timing of the previous intersection. The way to control multiple intersections cooperatively is called coordinated control. If the coordination is designed well, the traffic efficiency of these intersections can be improved significantly. A tool that has been used by the traffic control community to study and design the coordination is called time-space diagram. The time-space diagram reflects the trajectories of vehicles through a period of time.

I designed the Time-Space Invaders game to illustrate time-space diagrams and coordinated control concepts. The game visualization is based on a modified time-space diagram. I implemented a simulation algorithm to simulate the movement of cars. So the movement of the cars is, although random, realistic. When the students play this game, they can observe the phenomenon that is simplified and even ignored by people during a certain time in history.

Visits from surrounding middle schools

Although the targeting customers are the junior or senior undergraduate students, the games have been tested by middle school students. In the year of 2016 and 2017, students from surrounding middle schools visited Virginia Tech. We volunteered to give them short lectures on transportation engineering. It’s hard to explain the word of transportation engineering to those young visitors. Then we used the games. They got really interested in the games. During the lecture (and their gameplay), I heard voices from different seats. “I got an 8!” “I got a 10!” They are showing off the scores they got in the games. They are easy to get engaged. While they are playing the games, I started to explain to them what does the game elements mean in the real world and why what they saw happened. It’s rewarding to see the games can bring them happiness and knowledge at the same time.

Experience from what I have done

We tested the games in different years at Virginia Tech. The results showed the students can understand the hard concepts better in transportation engineering. The students were from transportation engineering classes and the concepts were taught in those classes. Ideally, the students should fully understand those concepts. The evaluations were conducted by before-and-after studies. The students were asked to do a quiz consisting of several multiple choice for a given topic before they play the corresponding game. No feedback on their grades was given to them. After playing the game, they were asked to do the quiz again. The quizzes and gameplay were untimed. Since playing the game was the only activity between the quizzes, it should be the only factor that causes the change of their grades. The statistics showed that their scores improved significantly. This means 1) their scores on the quiz improved, and 2) the improvement is not out of chance. This further implies the games can improve students’ understanding of the hard concepts in transportation engineering.

The middle school students from the visit showed more interest in the traffic planning game. Comparing to other games, the traffic planning game has more degree of freedom. The students can design the layout of the city rather than clicking certain buttons or dragging sliders. In another word, the world for them to explore is bigger. This phenomenon suggests education games developers to design games that can be explored further. However, to build a bigger world, the required time and resources become longer and more. A rewarding mechanism should be designed to encourage the developers and faculty to collaborate on building educational games.

The educational games can break barriers for students who do not have the background but still want to learn the topics. The transportation educational games were designed for junior or senior engineering students. However, the middle school students can still play them and learn certain knowledge from the gameplay.


Learning with Blogs: Easy but not Sweet

Blogs might be the easiest way to publish something. Claims are “if you write blogs well, you get good comments and many readers; if you are not such a good writer, you just live with it and do it better next time.” (Seth Godin & Tom Peters on blogging)

Blogs, as a part of internet contents, offer kinds of information. Some blogs writers like to write tutorials (sometimes as they are learning). Blog sites are good places to learn things quickly. Most of the programming knowledge that I learned was from the blogs of programmers. Also, when I solved a hard problem, I wrote a blog about it and teach newbies the solution path. Maybe it was not the original intention of blogging, but blogs do contribute to so called “life-long learning.”

However, the crowd-sourced nature of blogs cannot guarantee the quality of the contents. The mass production of blogs makes it harder for learners to find the material of good quality. The traditional way of publishing with a team of editors and writers produces cleaner contents.

For blog writers, blogging leaks their ideas and thoughts before a formal publishing. A wrote about an idea in blogs. One month later, B got the same idea published in a journal. A may not get credits for being the first one to present the idea to the public domain. However, it is still arguable to say A got the idea first because B may spend two months to polish the write-up. Also, some of the bloggers get critiques for not accurate information. Blogs are not personal notes. Some bloggers even write “no comments, just for self-notes.”