From Singapore university dropout to influencer: Hanoi man inspires STEM dreams through immersion

After switching schools multiple times - including a university in Singapore, Pham Viet Dung is working to realize his vision of contributing to Vietnam’s education renovation by setting up a STEM workshop and a Youtube channel to help local students put what they have learned at school to daily life.

Dung caused quite a stir a few years ago when he opted to return home and train to become a teacher after giving up his studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

He ended up graduating second in his Physics Education class offered in English by Hanoi National University of Education.

Upon Dung’s return to his home country, the same questions kept springing up in his head: “Why can a country in the same region [Singapore] outpace Vietnam so far?” and “What can be done to ensure Vietnam’s bid to foster its technology growth a success?”

It was those questions that prompted him to immerse himself in the educational environment at home for an answer. 

Journey of changes

Dung said the life-changing moment he experienced happened because of a childhood move.

Against objections from family members, Dung’s mother took him to Hanoi, where they stayed in a rented studio, with the boy doing his own cooking and washing.

School was something that he survived rather than enjoyed, as he found himself a victim of bullying and could hardly fit in.

His mother tried to get him into a class for well-performing students shortly before moving him out when she noticed her boy lagging behind all his classmates.

With his studies seemingly going nowhere, Dung was sent back to his hometown, where he made some money each day as a factory worker.

Back at square one, he threw himself into studying and made remarkable progress this time, particularly in physics.

His efforts paid off when he won a consolation prize at a city national contest for outstanding students in physics and made it to Hanoi University of Science and Technology with a high score, being one of the few test-takers to get 10 marks in physics that year.

It was then that the young man shifted his attention to physics and applied to the physics undergraduate program offered by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

It was a dream come true when he later won a scholarship to the island nation’s top notch university with 80 percent of the fees covered by the Singaporean government.

Dung considered himself extremely fortunate to be given the ‘golden opportunity’ to study there, adding the most enlightening thing he found out during that time is that the island city-state, which has emerged as a prosperous technology hub in the heart of Southeast Asia, like many other nations, thrives on sound policies and strategies to beef up technological advances.

The young man learned that these policies and strategies all come down to education renovations.

Six years ago, with his studies in Singapore incomplete, Dung made a surprising decision – opting to return to Vietnam to help rebuild his home country’s educational system.

“We need high schoolers who are brilliant, skilled and passionate about science and technology. Improvements need to start in the schooling that students receive, this calls for reforms in teaching approaches,” Dung shared.

Dung wasted no time in putting his ideas for sweeping changes into reality.

He worked as an intern at a private school, during which his experiences shed light on the local high school situation.

To his disappointment, Dung found out that except for a number of better-off schools, science is still taught perfunctorily at many local facilities, with the subject being too heavily theory-focused.

Students thus take such courses just to pass exams, not for the sake of learning itself or out of passion, he added.

“During my high school years, there were only around five times that I made it to the laboratory. The situation doesn’t seem to improve much now,” Dung shared.

Not sure what to do to make the situation better, some advised Dung to take an undergraduate program in education.

Pham Viet Dung (C) is seen in an explanatory session with school children in Vietnam. Photo: T. L./ Tuoi Tre

The young man then decided to major in Physics Education offered in English at Hanoi National University of Education against objections from family members and a barrage of questions from friends.

His efforts came to fruition when he was named salutatorian of his graduating class after four years of study.

Dung said it was not a degree that he went for during his four college years.

“I felt urged to enter the school, dubbed the ‘incubator’ of teachers, to find out how they are training would-be teaching staff,” Dung explained.

The time spent at the school allowed the aspiring instructor to figure out the missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, which is doing away with the theory-only teaching approach and providing teachers with training in how to conduct practice sessions.

“A teacher who fails to turn out products in their own area of specialty is unlikely to teach well,” Dung noted.

Big dream inside teeny STEM workshop

There’s one thing that Dung strives for.

With the support of a like-minded friend, Dung turns part of his home into his workshop, measuring only five square meters, where he puts his ideas into practice adopting the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) approach.

This term refers to the application of the four STEM disciplines in solving real-life problems and is typically employed when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools to improve competitiveness in science and technology growth.

Dung videotapes his process of building products in correspondence to the lessons in the high school curriculum before uploading them on his Youtube channel called ‘Vui hoc STEM’ (Have fun learning STEM).

“I want my workshop to be a rendezvous for college students to share ideas, practice and spread the reality-based approach,” Dung said.

‘That’s how I’m indirectly doing my part to the local education sector.”

Dung said he also welcomes innovative teaching and learning ideas from teachers, high schoolers and their parents from around the country, and hopes his tutorial video clips will help pique teenagers’ interest in science, equip them with tool building skills, and sharpen their critical, logical and creative thinking as well as the competence to solve problems.

Dung has formed a group of students majoring in education and alumni who share his teaching approach, aimed at improving students' way of thinking, which he believes is more important than pure knowledge.

The aspiring influencer also provides consulting for several high schools in holding STEM-based classes and events while also holding a seat on a high school’s Scientific Advisory Committee.

“There are different ways to put knowledge into real life. How to adopt the STEM trend may vary from one school to another based on their conditions,” Dung noted.

“But I have a dream that each high school will boast a workshop like mine. If we want a generation of grown-ups that excel in science and technology, we need to kindle their interest when they are kids,” he concluded.

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