VLIR-UOS South Initiative in Vietnam: Strengthening the education programme and research of the Master's in Solid-State Physics at the University of Quy Nhon
By Ewald Janssens
Strengthening higher education has been one of the priorities in Vietnam for several decades. However, investments are mainly concentrated in the big cities (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City), while a major lack of education and research resources remains a problem in poorer regions such as the South Central Coast region. Today the University of Quy Nhon is the only institution in this region to offer a Master's degree in physics. More specifically the university offers a two-year master's degree in solid-state physics. Although this new master (established in 2016) attracts a lot of students, both the educational and research programmes have significant shortcomings.
Building on positive experiences from previous curriculum-strengthening collaborations between the chemistry departments of the universities of Quy Nhon and Leuven, initiated by Prof. Minh Tho Nguyen and supported by VLIR-UOS, the physics departments of both universities decided to join forces to tackle these shortcomings. On the Vietnamese side, this initiative could build on a young, dynamic and motivated team of lecturers, most of whom recently obtained a PhD degree at foreign universities (South Korea, the Netherlands, Germany). However, this team has limited teaching experience, and virtually no resources to set up research activities locally or in collaboration with other universities. In fact, this project is the department's first official international cooperation.
The aim of the project was to strengthen both the educational programme and the research activities through intensive cooperation with KU Leuven. The objectives were to design and implement an improved curriculum for the Master in Solid-State Physics, to expand the research infrastructure to a limited extent, and to offer research training to local lecturers in Leuven. The curriculum changes involved updates of the educational topics, and also integration of research skills in different subjects.
Since all new teaching materials were drawn up in English and every lesson was taught in English by KU Leuven professors, the students' English skills were also a focus. With a view on internationalisation, proficiency in English is a major weakness in the current Vietnamese education system.
Seven subjects were identified for optimisation: solid-state physics, magnetism and magnetic materials, physics of nanomaterials, electronic structure and bonding in molecules and solids, physics and technology of thin films, scientific research methodology, and microelectronic technology and microfabrication. For each course, in consultation with the teaching team in Quy Nhon, a professor from the Quantum Solid-State Physics division revised the syllabus and compiled course material. The professors from Leuven (Chris Van Haesendonck, Lino Pereira, Ewald Janssens, André Vantomme, Kristiaan Temst, Margriet Van Bael, and Joris Van de Vondel) went to Quy Nhon to teach intensive courses. The lessons were followed with great attention by at least two local teachers who, based on the jointly prepared course material, will take the lead in teaching the subjects in the coming years. In the afternoons the local teachers also spent time with the students. They explained difficult concepts and helped with exercises and assignments.
During the process of reworking the courses particular attention was given to the training of research skills, such as analysis of scientific articles. In the original master’s programme not much attention was paid to these aspects. The new scientific research methodology course is entirely devoted to research skills and covers scientific integrity, use of libraries and sources of information, and scientific communication in written and oral form. For the first time, students had to give a short presentation in English. While it was a huge challenge for many of them, it was also a great success for most students.
Part of the project funds were used for a limited expansion of the local research infrastructure. The lack of advanced characterisation techniques is a major problem, not only for local research work but also for educational activities (project work, master's thesis research). A versatile compact Raman spectrometer was purchased. In the future, this device will show its usefulness for acute problems in the field of food poisoning and drinking water pollution.
For further training of the local lecturers in research techniques, six short research visits from Quy Nhon to Leuven were organised. Given the lack of infrastructure in Quy Nhon, the main purpose of these visits was structural, optical and electronic characterisation of nanostructured materials found in Quy Nhon.
Without doubt, the project has had a significant impact on the learning and teaching processes and on the research activities of students and staff of the physics department in Quy Nhon. The curriculum of the Master in Solid-State Physics was thoroughly reshaped, and the new programme was implemented and approved. In addition, the project has significantly improved the quality of the courses, leading to greater student satisfaction and motivation. Close interaction with KU Leuven professors enabled the local lecturers to refine their teaching skills. As mentioned above, they were also given the opportunity to carry out part of their research at KU Leuven,. More specifically they were able to use techniques that are inaccessible for them in Vietnam, like TEM and XPS, for sample characterisation. As a result, the quality of their research has improved, which has already led to contributions to conferences and first joint publications in international journals. Finally, the Raman spectrometer, purchased with project money, is becoming a reliable instrument for both education and research.
A survey about the master’s programme shows that students and teachers are unanimously enthusiastic about the quality of all revised courses. The research exchanges have had a positive effect on the motivation of the young Vietnamese lecturers and the international cooperation with KU Leuven stimulates the quality of their work.
The South Initiative project has recently ended, but the researchers involved continue to actively work to strengthen cooperation between the two departments. In the near future, the ambition is to acquire joint project resources for the further development of specific research topics.