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China vs. USA

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China vs. USA

Season 2 · Episode 18

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How does China prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields, compared to the USA? Hear from a Chinese student of computer science and mathematics who is studying in Texas for his undergraduate degree. He talks about the notorious Chinese college entrance exams, similarities between math and computer science, perceptions of an American education and American companies among Chinese, and why he would have learned more programming at a younger age if he could have.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Listen to the Engineering Word Of The Day podcast. Also check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Pius Wong  0:00 

Hey there. Before this episode starts, I just want to get the attention of all you drone enthusiasts out there. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is helping to spread the word about a drone contest. And if you win, you can get free passes to an international drone conference in Las Vegas this fall. If you're interested in this, just stay tuned to the end of this episode, and I'll tell you all about how to enter and how to win. Now on to the show.


Pius Wong  0:34 

It's July 10th, 2017. And this is the K12 Engineering Education Podcast. I'm your host, Pius Wong. Last season, we had an episode mentioning how foreign students come to the US at relatively high rates to study engineering, computer science and other STEM fields. We already had one good conversation to try to understand why this is so, comparing the Indian education system to the US. In this episode, I try to find out about the Chinese system in comparison to the US.


Haocheng  1:15 

Hi, I'm Haocheng. I'm currently a senior in UT.


Pius Wong  1:19 

Recently I spoke with Haocheng, a Chinese student in his last year studying math and computer science as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin.


Haocheng  1:29 

I did some research last year, and basically it's about condition number estimation, that is, more, say, use computers to implement some numerical analysis algorithms.


Pius Wong  1:41 

That sounds like an impressive mouthful to anyone, engineer or not. He summarized his research project as advancing data analysis or data science.


Pius Wong  1:52 

But you're learning. You're doing it -


Haocheng  1:53 

Yeah, I mean doing research is pretty fun. I mean, it's kind of a struggle at first. So it's basically: feel what you're learning in class is only a start. And there is a huge gap between what you learn to what the research requires.


Pius Wong  2:08 



Pius Wong  2:12 

I asked Haocheng about his background, to find what got him to Texas studying all this and why. He began by explaining that he was from Beijing, China's capital city, which is a somewhat different world compared to the rest of China, let alone compared to the US. For starters, Beijing has almost 22 million people. Compare that to New York City, which only has eight and a half million. Haocheng talked about how Beijing is split amongst 16 urban and rural districts, and he compared education systems in these areas.


Haocheng  2:44 

Urban areas have much more, much better, say resources for students. That's kind of unfair, I know, but that's okay. I, myself, am from the urban area.


Pius Wong  2:59 

Okay. So would you say that growing up, you had a little bit of an advantage in your education?


Haocheng  3:05 

Yeah, definitely. I mean, China itself also has some kind of imbalance in education. I have to admit that. It's like, so the more developed this part is, actually the built better the education is. For Beijing, specifically, the urban area is better than the rural area.


Pius Wong  3:26 

You might have heard about the notorious Chinese college entrance examinations before. Haocheng spoke about them as an example of the urban-rural divide.


Haocheng  3:36 

Okay, in China, if you want go to universities, most people or almost 95% of the students have to take the college entrance examination. And the government classifies the universities into three tiers. The first -- you can just -- we'll just call it the first tier, second tier, and the third tier. The first tier is the best, and the third tier is the worst. Usually, there's a cut-off for -- by taking a college entrance examination, you have a score. Usually they have a cut-off for a first-tier student, second tier, third tier.


Pius Wong  4:13 

So it sounds like the SAT. Have you heard of that?


Haocheng  4:17 

Yeah, I've taken SAT when I came here, so I knew the SAT. But SAT is basically one of the important factors. I know that they also look at your high school GPA. They also look at your reference letters. But those all things are totally not relevant --


Haocheng  4:36 

Yeah. Compared to a college examination. Almost that's the only thing they care about outside top four minorities. For extremely talented people, they can win Olympic gold medals. They can win, say, IMO - International Mathematics Olympiad medals. They can also get into great schools, but that's not for the majority. And what we care most is just -- the cut-off for a first level universities, there's a score. And then for urban areas, usually, in Beijing, usually 40 to 50% of students can get more than this point. But for rural areas about 10 or 15%. So that's kind of a big gap.


Pius Wong  4:36 

To China?


Pius Wong  4:37 

So he took not only the SAT but the Chinese college entrance exams. How did he do? And why did he go to the US?


Haocheng  5:32 

I tried but I didn't make a good grade. I did get above the first level cut-offs, and there are still two more better levels above the first level. There are two numbers, mine is eighty-five. I'm two eleven. Those two are some elite schools, you know, first tier, but I didn't get into that tier. So later, I thought, well, American schools, maybe you have you have a better education. That's what they -- what people usually say, the higher education in the US is better. That's the primary reason I came here. Computer science is big, basically, and up to now I think it's still led by United States. You have so much wonderful companies.


Pius Wong  6:21 

Haocheng then named Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and other American tech companies with a global reputation. I asked if this was just his view, or if others in China thought the same way.


Haocheng  6:33 

I think that's a consensus between Chinese. We definitely believe that in the technology side the United States is still leading the world.  So higher education is actually the place where [you] produce the technologies, I think.


Pius Wong  6:55 

Wow. Okay, and so why did you go to the University of Texas? I'm just curious.


Haocheng  7:02 

That's a good question. [laughs] UT is definitely -- We check the rankings to see it kind of leading in the computer science and in the engineering field. And I find Austin is -- Ranking is what we think most of the time, but when I came here, I find out Austin is also a great place to live in. So that's the basic reason I'm coming here.


Pius Wong  7:30 

Yeah, very different from Beijing.


Pius Wong  7:35 

Haocheng spoke more about his interests in math and programming growing up, or in the case of computer science, his lack of interest. He mentioned how computer science is not on the Chinese college entrance exams, and computer science classes aren't common at the K-12 level, even in urban schools, like his. So then I wondered what the perception was of computer science among Chinese students in general.


Pius Wong  7:59 

Would you say that there were a lot of kids interested in the same things that you were? Is data or mathematics and computer science popular in China, growing up?


Haocheng  8:12 

I think so. I think there are a lot of people, including industry -- basically, when I talk -- So still when I talk to my friends in China, who joined the same high school or junior school as me, basically when they don't know what to major in, they just pick maybe mathematics or computer science, because it can never go wrong.


Pius Wong  8:34 

Interesting. When did you start learning to program? Was it in college?


Haocheng  8:37 

Yeah. Here. This is my second year, so I only programmed for two years.


Pius Wong  8:45 

Interesting. Okay, so then you probably have -- and you're already doing all this research, but you probably have gone a long way, is what it sounds like, in two years.


Haocheng  8:55 

I mean, the research is -- I classify this as more math-based. But I think maybe the math background really helps me a lot. Let's say, for math in China -- Take math as an example. In a college examination, there's always a multiple choice question asking you to read a flowchart and understand what it's doing, tell me the answer. It's basically the primary thing of algorithms. I have those kinds of trainings that kind of helps me in understanding the computer science stuff, especially data structure algorithms. It seems kind of familiar to me. So I may take some advantage from it, but formally started programming here.


Pius Wong  9:43 

But you did flowcharts and you did algorithms in math, this is what it sounds like.


Haocheng  9:47 

There are some really simple algorithms, let's say, add one squared, two squared, to, say, a hundred squared. Tell me what this is doing?


Pius Wong  9:59 

If you could redo your education when you were younger, is there anything you would do differently? '


Haocheng  10:05 

Start programming.


Pius Wong  10:07 

You would have started programming younger.


Haocheng  10:08 

Yeah, I need to start programming younger. I mean, programming for me, it's like practice makes perfect. For most people practice makes perfect. Not much people come get to, say, algorithm design or invent a new algorithm or whatever. So I think if ou start younger, it kind of helps -- really helps understand what is going on, what you study in math sometimes.


Pius Wong  10:35 

So he thinks combining computing with math or other subjects could enhance understanding of both.


Haocheng  10:41 

Let's take an example of, let's say, one over one times two, plus one over two times three, plus one over three times four, something like that. And you need to change "one over one times two" to "one minus one over two" and then minus-plus-minus-plus. You can get it. But I just learned mathematics, and if I learn programming I can implement it on a computer, and I can just take an arbitrarily large N, and I can guess what it's doing. So I think with the implementation, I can enhance my study.


Pius Wong  11:20 

I asked Haocheng to compare his Chinese education to the US system as he knew it. He said his American counterparts in college seem to be about two years behind in math in general, but that high-achieving American students still go really far, or maybe farther than Chinese students. For college computer science, he thought that American classes integrated more theory with practice, which he liked. Then Haocheng spoke about the K-12 level. In China, there seemed to be more emphasis on memorization, which he thought was helpful for him.


Haocheng  11:53 

Take a simple example is our -- Say, we have a table of nine by nine. You need to be remember the results of one-digit number times one-digit number, and you need to remember the whole table. But I think here, what I heard is people just usually use a calculator. I think by remembering them, and then to practice a lot, you have an idea of, say how large a number is usually. Because I used to be a calculus tutor here. And sometimes I talk to some American students. I feel a problem with them is that they -- Once they get the answer, I can easily tell it's wrong, just because I can approximately know how big this number is, and your number makes no sense. But they may not know that, maybe because everything they do is reliant on the calculator, and they don't remember this. So when it comes to, say -- so they may have higher error rates. So I think maybe -- I don't mean to encourage you to practice as much as possible, to say, practice a hundred questions a day. That's not much sense, but practicing an appropriate amount will make you more familiar with the materials and get better understanding.


Pius Wong  13:28 

What does the US do that's great, that maybe China should do more? When I asked Haocheng, he loved that educational and college prep summer camps were more accessible, and not just for the more privileged. In China during his first year of high school, Haocheng went to a Chinese camp and described his experience.


Haocheng  13:50 

It was almost like -- The university gives different number of people allowed for different schools, and the schools recommend students to there. The first couple of days introduce you to different departments and what they do. At the last day usually is a test. [laughs]


Pius Wong  14:16 

They give you a test at the summer camp?


Haocheng  14:17 

Yeah, they give you a test. Well, the test is primarily for them to find the elite students. If you do well on the test, you can add some points in your colleges entrance examination.


Pius Wong  14:31 

So it helps you get into university later.


Haocheng  14:34 

Yeah, but it's really hard to get in that kind of camp. Ours only had three spots available for that year, while our class had 400 people, I think. And those are only for elite schools. So I think the summer camps can get students more exposure to a specific area, which I think is really good.


Pius Wong  14:57 

And kids, whether American or Chinese, could use all the help they can get when it comes to studying computer science and other STEM fields. Haocheng guessed that in Beijing and Shanghai, some of the largest and richest areas of China, maybe 20 to 30% of the population around him had a college degree, with it being less common in other places.


Haocheng  15:18 

I mean, higher education is really -- It's really hard to get higher education in China compared to here, though China started expanding the college size since 1999. I know that when my mom and my dad took the college examination, usually the college acceptance rate is about 5 to 6%. Now it's getting better. Usually you can't get to college with 60 to 70%. But those companies, recruiters, if you want a good job, they want you to be at least from the first level universities. Some better companies even require two-eleven, nine-eighty-five, PhD, or Masters only.


Pius Wong  16:05 

So it goes back to what you were saying in the beginning. China is huge. It's hard to have everyone get an education.


Haocheng  16:12 

Yeah, education is more selective.


Pius Wong  16:16 

Sure. But if you go to a second- or third-tier college or university in China, does that mean you can still find a good job?


Haocheng  16:25 

Well, it's kind of hard to find one, but it's still possible. I mean, yeah, it's still possible. It depends on, what have you done? Those who are really elite can get to really elite schools during their Master time. People usually -- From the people I knew, almost everyone would get a Master degree, no matter what major they're in. Because PhD, you know, you need to -- That's maybe a reason why almost all the people I know also come to the US for Master degrees, because Bachelors degree is kind of still expensive here. Masters is manageable. You can get -- People in China usually value you more for foreign degrees than the Masters degrees. That's at least shows you are kind of qualified in English.


Pius Wong  17:28 

I closed out by asking Haocheng what he wanted to do professionally in the future.


Pius Wong  17:33 

Are you going to be in the USA or China?


Haocheng  17:35 

That's a good question.  Many people asked me this before, which I think -- It really depends. I haven't decided yet. Because I know that, from the news, it seems that -- seems like China's growing sharply in this area. Yeah, maybe one day we will have -- At least China will have a bigger market, because there are one billion more people than here.


Pius Wong  18:03 

Thank you to Haocheng, student of computer science and mathematics here in Texas. Thank you for listening. For links to a few topics mentioned today, check out this episode's show notes. And don't forget to stay tuned to the end of the show for more details about the drone contest.


Pius Wong  18:24 

Got something to add to the conversation? Message the show on Twitter: @K12Engineering, or message me: @PiusWong. Review the show on iTunes, follow it on Facebook, and donate to the show on my Patreon. Find the details at the podcast website: k12engineering.net. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs, and you can support Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.


Pius Wong  19:05 

Hey, an announcement for this July 2017 and only this July 2017. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is helping to publicize a drone contest. And the prize for the winners of this drone contest are going to be free passes to the drone conference this fall this September. The Interdrone conference, if you haven't heard of it, is kind of a new conference. It's a big international conference just about drones. And its industrial, meaning drone designers and builders go there. Drone pilots go there. People who film and photograph things with drones go there. So the education presence at this conference isn't as big yet. But they are hoping to spread into that arena more and more. And hey, if you're an educator or someone who is a supporter of this podcast, and you love drones, by all means you should crash their conference, spread some educational ideas. All that said, if you want to go there, and you want to save a couple hundred bucks on a registration, like if you're already paying to go to Las Vegas this time, well, why don't you get a free registration? To do it, you can enter and possibly win this contest in two ways. One way is by entering a photo contest. The photo contest is being run by the company Electronics Valley. And you can find the details on the link that is in this episode show notes. But you go to that link, and it gives you the official rules, but basically, take an awesome photo that represents the theme "Drone in My Family." So whatever that means to you, if you want to make an inspiring photo, a beautiful photo, or a hilarious photo -- those are the criteria that go in my mind when I think about that -- if you want to make that photo that represents "drone in my family," then go ahead and take it and submit it to that link that I've got on this episode's show notes. And also, if you don't think you're a photographer, there is option number two, for winning a free pass to Interdrone. Option number two is easy. You just send this podcast an email info@k12engineering.net. Send an email with the subject line "drone raffle." And if you email info@k12engineering net with the subject line "drone raffle," I'll take a note of it if you do this before the deadline of August 1. I will pick one drone enthusiast winner to get a free pass to Interdrone. Now, all that said, again, this isn't going to be like some all-expenses paid trip or anything, so I am not that amazing. But hey, you can save a couple hundred bucks, and you can go see a lot of cool toys if you go out there. And I think that you should check it out if you can. That's all. Hope to see your photos and your emails.