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Bringing physics to the migrant children of China

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It is often referred to as the largest annual human migration on Earth. During the month bracketing the lunar new year, you don’t want to try your luck at domestic leisure travel in China: railway stations burst at the seams and airports are massively overcrowded.

Tickets are expensive and incredibly hard to come by. No wonder: more than 70% of the 1.4 billion-strong Chinese population will travel home, placing a huge burden on the country’s transportation system.

Six years ago, I made the move from my relatively comfortable job at a leading red-brick university in the UK to an exciting senior appointment at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. At the time, the KIAA had just been established as a new international research institute on the campus of Peking University, the country’s leading research university. Because of my past involvement in the IOP’s Yorkshire branch, I was approached to become the Institute’s international coordinator for China, to represent the IOP’s academic interests.

Now, with my sixth Chinese New Year on the horizon, I am still amazed by the vast scale of this annual migration. This is the time of family get-togethers, a once-a-year opportunity for many of the poorest workers to see their loved ones in far-flung provinces. China’s economy has been booming for more than a decade, largely supported by large-scale construction activity in the first- and second-tier cities on its eastern seaboard.

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Around the time of the Chinese New Year, migrant workers from the city will return to the rural areas of China to celebrate and share the festivities with their family. (Photo: Wiki commons)

Looking around Beijing these past few years, there are few places where you don’t see migrant workers toiling away. Most of these labourers, including waiters and waitresses, delivery personnel and shop assistants, come from small, rural villages and towns in the less developed western provinces. They spend countless hours on the job to send some of their hard-earned salaries back home.

Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or any of the other metropolises wouldn’t run as well without their presence and dedication, yet they have few rights to access services in the cities they call home for most of the year. This causes serious problems for families with young children: under China’s domestic residence permit rules, children can only attend state schools in the area where they are registered – and moving a countryside residence permit, or hukou, to the city is virtually impossible for the poorest workers.

This is a particular problem in Beijing and to a lesser extent in other first-tier cities. This dire situation prompted former British school teacher Helen Boyle to quit her job in the UK and establish the Migrant Children’s Foundation.

Within a year of my arrival in Beijing, I met both Helen and David Evans, at the time the Beijing section head of the Royal Society of Chemistry. With Helen and David, we naturally came up with the idea to expand the range of educational activities offered to the small number of schools for children of migrant families Helen’s organisation was working with to include monthly physics and chemistry days.

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Many children of migrant workers struggle to access educational services, so Richard and his colleagues looked to develop educational activities available to schools for these children.

Following a large-scale launch event in April 2012, which was covered by the China Daily, our physics and chemistry days have now become part of the fabric in a number of schools for migrant children. Given the language barrier, the physics events are led by a number of my Chinese PhD students and their classmates. I am indeed very grateful to my students for taking on this very demanding role, which often includes significant preparation time and effort.

Each semester, we focus our lessons on a specific school, and none of them are anywhere close to where we are based. It often takes one and half to two hours by bus, metro and taxi to get there for a 9am Saturday morning start. Sessions run until lunchtime, when both the eager children and our dedicated volunteers are sad to say goodbye for another month.

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Activities such as these help children from these migrant families learn the basics of physics.

The children keenly look forward to attending our hands-on and fun physics classes, many based on Joe Brock’s invaluable collection Teaching Practical Physics Anywhere, and their overstretched teachers volunteer to offer a helping hand despite their high workloads.

Seeing their eyes light up with joy and a modicum of understanding – possibly even instilling a measure of appreciation for science – is the greatest reward we can hope for, and this is well worth the effort.

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Richard de Grijs

Richard de Grijs

Richard is a professor of astrophysics at the Kavii Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University, and represents the IOP in China.
Richard de Grijs
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