Ms. Elise Konings – the project manager (on the left) and Professor Luc Van Meervelt – the academic coordinator (on the right). Photo taken at the Kick-off meeting (Can Tho University, February 2019).

This week, the Erasmus+ project ‘Research-Based Curriculum Development in Molecular and Materials Science in Vietnam’ (MOMA) will start. As an education project, MOMA focuses on upgrading the physics and chemistry curricula offered by four Vietnamese universities. The project could be called a spin-off of mainly research-based projects funded by the Belgian government in the framework of development cooperation (VLIR-UOS). This is the first time that KU Leuven has committed itself to a large-scale capacity-building project that is fully focused on education.

Elise Konings of the International Office is the programme manager of the three-year project. “The VLIR-UOS projects we know at KU Leuven are predominantly research-based. Education is often only a very small component within these projects. The popularity of theVLIR-UOS calls for proposals increases every year, and every year more project proposals are submitted.  Thus 61 projects were submitted in 2018, of which only 13 were selected. Due to the increase in the number of submitted propasals, the number of disappointed professors who tried really hard to get their initiatives selected also increases. That is why in 2017 we took the initiative to gather around the tabel some of the promoters of approved and rejected proposals that involve Vietnam.  All these pojects contained an education component.and were therefore eligible for the Erasmus+ Capacity Building Call, a  call for projects that focus on the modernisation, accessibility and internationalisation of higher education in EU partner countries. In the summer of 2018 we received the terrific news that our project got selected.”

“On the European side we closely cooperate with the Nanophysics Department of the Univerisity of Twente (The Netherlands) and the Chemistry Department of the University of Rostock (Germany). In Vietnam four institutions are involved: Hanoi University of Education, Da Nang University, Quy Nhon University and Can Tho University,” Professor Van Meervelt, who is the academic coordinator of this project, explains. “The programmes in Chemistry and Physics are very much outdated in Vietnam and desperately need an upgrade. At KU Leuven the education we offer as a rule is research-based, but that is absolutely not the case in Vietnam.  In Vietnam it sometimes happens that professors need to teach courses in fields in which they are no experts, and the knowledge and level of English is rather low. The Vietnamese government is stimulating universities to teach their courses in English. That is why the KU Leuven Institute for Living Languages (ILT) is also involved in this project. To enable research-based teaching, well-equipped laboratories are needed, and so a large part of the budget will be invested in upgrading the Vietnamese laboratories. Quite peculiar is the fact that in Vietnam too the number of students registering for exact sciences decreases, thus following the European trend. That is also something that needs to be taken care of, and so the project invests in open days and tries to make chemistry and physics education attractive again.

A fantastic commitment and great ambitions

Elise Konings travelled to Vietnam in 2017 to elaborate the proposal together with the four Vietnamese partners. “I went to Quy Nhon with only a very limited proposal of the four KU Leuven professors involved. You need to know that Quy Nhon is not a very accessible place and that it takes a one -hour flight from either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to get to Quy Nhon. But nevertheless all universities sent a couple of representatives and so for three full days we worked together on the proposal. The engagement of the Vietnamese partners was really fantastic! You could sense their enthusiasm in the room and they will certainly carry this project the best they can. I hope we will feel the same kind of enthusiasm during the implementation of the project. KU Leuven is coordinating this project, so we, as an institution, receive the full budget, but the largest part of the project will be carried out in Vietnam. I am happy we have been able to realise this and that we, the Development Cooperation Unit of the International Office, can also learn from this experience.”

Over the years, Professor Van Meervelt has developed a large network within KU Leuven and he intends to use that network for this project. His contacts with Vietnamese professors and doctoral students in Vietnam also prove to be of great value for MOMA. “We hope to be able to convince quite some professors in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Physics and Astronomy to join in, and to go and teach some intensive courses in Vietnam. We have great ambitions, but I think we can achieve our goals. The project can rely on existing KU Leuven courses. We will not literally translate our courses into Vietnamese, but we can use the existing courses as a basis to build upon. This project is in line with the intention of the university management to invest in development cooperation. It is the largest project I have ever participated in, especially when it comes to the budget involved,” a satisfied professor concludes.

A project with a future

“Sustainability and impact are part of this project, we need to make sure that the project results will last for many more years to come. The Vietnamese partners are so strong within our network that I never believe that this collaboration will end when this project finishes,” Elise Konings explains.