Nguyen Anh Tu, author of "Chemistry Labyrinth" game. ©

British Council

Passion is no catchword and we ourselves have to be brave to be winners.

From STEM-approached learning to the “Chemistry Labyrinth” Project

Tu says that STEM is a new and useful experience for students, helping them to understand and flexibly apply knowledge into real life situations. For many of her classmates STEM makes science less boring and intimidating. But for her, with a passion for science, “STEM helps me to remember the theory better because it’s supported by practice. And the success of my ‘Chemistry Labyrinth’ project can partly be attributed to the knowledge I gained with STEM”.

The Chemistry Labyrinth is a game designed to run on Android-powered smartphones. The purpose of the game is to help players to revise their knowledge of chemistry in the most engaging manner.

The Chemistry Labyrinth project won the third prize in the Quang Ninh provincial science and technology competition and encouragement prize which recognises strong effort in the 12th National Science and Technology Initiative Competition for Young People. It is also one of the best projects that came out of the STEM Education Programme delivered by the British Council and sponsored by Newton Fund. 

So Tu, can you tell me how it all started, your Chemistry Labyrinth project?

In my role as the Youth Union Deputy Secretary of my class, I usually help some of my classmates with chemistry lessons. My observation is that while they do make certain progress, it’s not sustainable. People often think that students who major in natural sciences will do well in all science subjects, but I have seen many who excel in only one. For example, they can be very good at Maths but helpless at Physics, and especially Chemistry which involves memorising a lot of formulas to the extent that students are lost and do not know where to start and what to learn. 

How did you transform what was originally only a personal observation into a real mobile phone application?

After conceiving the idea, I rolled up my sleeves and conducted a survey, first things first. Originally I only vaguely thought that there had to be some way to help my friends, but I did not know exactly what I should make. Then I came across some data on the renowned “We are social” website which suggested that by 2016, as many as 55% of the Vietnamese population own a smartphone and 71.7% of game players are at school age. Therefore, I decided to make a game application for use on mobile phones.

What tools did you use to make such an app?

I tried to use as much as possible the skills and knowledge acquired through STEM subjects to develop this software. First I used maths knowledge to find out the optimal and most random algorithm to make sure each stage of the game involves a different question. Next, I relied on information technology to write and develop the software. The questions I made are all multiple choice questions, which mean I need to have a sound foundation of knowledge of chemistry as a subject. STEM has been very helpful to me in making this software a reality. 

It must have been an incredible journey, having to develop such software from A to Z on your own? 

Looking back, I sometimes still question how I could have done all this. First, design. It’s no piece of cake designing games, let alone a three-dimensional one! I had to learn as I made it. There were times when I wanted to give up, but I don’t know why I still went on. And it took me seven months in total to make this game.

Another difficulty I had was with running the software. There were errors in the prototype that I could not fix for four or five days in a row. And sometimes a solution to one error led to a thousand other errors, at which point I had to delete the whole programme and started all over again from scratch. When I finally made one, the first version, it turned out not to function really well, so I had to repeat the same process several times more. 

Many people distance girls from science and advise them to choose a more practical job that provides stability, saying science is too hard a career. What do you think about this perception?

One example of this perception is the belief that girls are usually not recruited for science posts, and most companies only look for male applicants. But if we women can be discouraged and disheartened so easily by such stereotypes, there would have never been the likes of Marie Curie who is the first female Nobel laureate. I deeply admire her tireless efforts! Therefore, the only point that counts is passion, and ultimately the bravery to translate it into something concrete.

It’s hard to define what “a practical job that provides stability” is, but I see that many people nowadays are job-hopping very frequently and they won’t stop until they find the one that really interests them, even though their current jobs are already very well-paid. I think it’s all down to personal choice. We should not impose our preference on others and judge others’ work by our own measures.

And on a side note, I also read that girls are making faster improvement in IQ than boys, according to recent studies. (laughs)

If science is your passion, does it mean there will be more projects similar to the Chemistry Labyrinth game in the near future?

It takes a lot of time to engineer a product like Chemistry Labyrinth game, but of course, I have some other new ideas. For example, I’m thinking about a software package that can help sea navigators or tourists and fishermen to easily send mayday or distress signals as soon as they are in trouble at sea. Or another idea is about the monitoring of vessels in Ha Long Bay to review the environmental conditions of the bay. I also hope that I have more STEM lessons so that I can further improve my skills to become a more successful scientist in the future.

Your ideas all seem to have started with your province Quang Ninh, very close to home and linked to the settings here. Were you inspired by some of the stories in your neighbourhood? 

My idea was conceived quite accidentally when I heard stories from my neighbour. He and his wife both go fishing at sea and only come home at weekends. And they only have small boats, not the kind of well-equipped vessels that can sail far away from the shore. I think fishermen like them cannot afford to bring along cumbersome equipment, even when accidents occur. So I asked myself why I don’t think of writing a simple application that can be used on mobile phones to help people like them. 

But software seems to be a well-trodden path. Are you sure it’s your future?

I plan is pursue degree in Information Technology at university and complete a major in IT security. I will study more about mathematics so that I can find the best and shortest algorithms.

Thanks Tu, and I hope that your experience with STEM will be even more rewarding in the future.