China / People

Science center founder blazes educational trail

By Tan Yingzi and Deng Rui in Chongqing (China Daily) Updated: 2015-05-21 07:46

Scholar eschews offers from leading Chinese universities to teach physics to youngsters

What does a young man with two doctorates in physics do for a career?

Li Zhifeng has devoted himself to science education and setting up China's first science laboratory for youngsters.

With a stylish haircut and charming smile, the 38-year-old looks far from the stereotyped impression of the science nerds in the US TV show The Big Bang Theory.

Li attained two doctorates in physics, first from Chongqing University and later from Vienna University, with honors in 2012. He gave up a post-doctorate offer from Virginia Tech University with an annual salary of 400,000 yuan ($65,000) upon graduation. Li declined an offer to teach at Tsinghua University and Renmin University, two of China's leading universities.

"If I confine myself to one certain aspect of scientific research, there might be limited breakthroughs and achievements for me. I want to play a greater role in society in the areas of culture and education," he said.

Inspired by his experience in Europe, Li decided to introduce the methodology for advanced science education that he found there back home for Chinese youngsters.

During Li's studies in Austria, he usually followed his mentor in giving science lectures to primary school children. He found that many of them read scientific books, and some would even come up with questions involving "black holes" and "time travel" that grown-ups could not possibly answer.

"I was very impressed when visiting one well-known accelerator laboratory in Europe, which not only provided access for the children, but also arranged for scientific researchers to elaborate on every single item for scientific educational purposes," he said.

Tough times

In 2012, Li returned to Chongqing and founded the Chongqing Q-Cat Science Center with a partner, who also holds a doctorate in physics.

Launching the center was tough at first. Li and his partner, Wang Jinhua, put in about 200,000 yuan ($32,000) as startup capital, bought equipment, hired staff members and paid the rent. But in the first month, the center had just two students.

Later, the business project attracted considerable media attention and a local government subsidy of 300,000 yuan.

"Li's project is very innovative," said Su Fu, who handles project-funding grants at the Chongqing Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security, which approved Li's investment capital.

"It will have a big social impact and great market potential," Su said of the center.

It now has three branches in Chongqing and runs science classes for primary and middle-school students, charging about 100 yuan per session. It also stages free public science lectures and organizes visits and invention competitions.

One classroom is designed like a space capsule and Li dresses like an astronaut to teach students about space.

"Our science classes will allow the children to acquire knowledge through hands-on experiments, and will encourage their interest in scientific exploration," Li said.

For instance, students will learn about negative air pressure, one phenomenon of aerodynamics, by practicing "the magic blow", which involves holding a sheet of A4 paper and blowing underneath it to lift it up.

"This is a very simple experiment in learning about negative air pressure, and it is how an airplane takes off," Li said.

Liu Yun, a science teacher, sent his son to study science at the center.

"A school education caters for most children. But for those with additional learning capacity or who need to acquire advanced knowledge, the Q-Cat Science Center is a good choice," he said. "This center will make my son's scientific dream come true."

Li hopes that one of the students from his center can win a Nobel Prize for outstanding contributions for physics.

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Science center founder blazes educational trail

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