Changemakers: Meet the Keystone seniors who embody actionable change to transform the world

By Andy Peñafuerte III
02/25/2022

In September 2020, the then-junior students of Keystone Academy joined in a day-long conference that challenged them to internalize and embody actionable change. The event, titled “Be the Change”, was directly linked to the Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) component of the Keystone high school and IB Diploma curriculum. Those participating juniors—soon to be Keystone’s newest cohort of graduates—have stood by their pledges to be global changemakers despite the challenges that the world has faced in the past two years. Among these students are three admitted to the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Their academic force is indeed undeniable, but their focus, channeled through CAS projects and many other personal initiatives, is geared towards the things that matter to them and the wider community.

In this special feature, we profile Jane Liu, Kevin Zhang, and Michael Chang, three members of the Keystone Class of 2022 powered up to become part of this generation’s league of changemakers.

 


 

The Choice Is Yours: Jane Liu makes a stand for animal welfare

There was a giant creature that almost claimed the neighborhood where Jane Liu lived. For years, the deafening growls of a massive Tibetan mastiff intimidated passersby and children, until one autumn day when its owner suddenly left the town and abandoned the dog, alone on its leash. Adults forbade their children from coming close to the canine, even if they all saw it struggling and starving. Within a month, its barks dissipated with the breeze.

Jane has always felt a strong connection with living organisms, but certain beliefs have limited her interactions with them. Several years back, when the young Jane visited her uncle’s homeland in Inner Mongolia, she found a good friend in a goat, which wandered with her in the pastures. It even “welcomed” the girl to its herd of another doe and two energetic kids. Later, Jane learned from her uncle that the gentle caprine would be slaughtered soon.

“You always care too much about animals,” Jane remembers her grandma saying in response to her immense devastation. “Don’t cry over the livestock, dear. Animals and plants are all meant to serve us because humans are the only ones special and intelligent.”

“As I grew older,” Jane reflects, “I understood that I could never reasonably refute grandma’s claim as she and I were equally biased.” And even though Jane felt upset by grandma’s remark, “I did begin to accept her opinion about how special humans are.”

When the mastiff in their neighborhood yelped for help, Jane stood aside. The image of the fallen canine haunted her for months; if it was not for her timidity, she says, she could have done something to save the guard dog. Those experiences have become Jane’s constant reminder as she carried on with her middle and high school life. She remembers how the goat strove to live its life that carried so much more weight than the sixty kilograms of meat that it could give. She feels the giant dog has always looked out on her. She wants to use the “specialness” her grandma talks about to protect animals in some other way.

Since starting at Keystone as a ninth-grade student in 2018, Jane has produced graphic art for the Panda Conservation and Community Development (PCCD) Project, a student-led initiative that supports local initiatives in Ya’an village in Sichuan Province to protect panda habitats and enclosures. In the spring semester of 2019, she hand-drew a graphic book about the animals she encountered on safari, following her family trip to East Africa. Jane explored the path of synthetic biology in 2020, when she and several classmates and friends formed Keystone’s first team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. They won a gold medal for their impressive recycling bin that uses a modified enzyme that can break down plastic materials and turn them into reusable organic compounds to make recyclable plastic bottles. Their coach, Biology teacher Sindhura Mahendran, was impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge shown by Jane and her team, especially as they juggled researching on their own with the academic workload and other pressures during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the summer of 2021, while Jane was preparing to coach a new group of Keystone students participating in that year’s iGEM competition, she accepted Ms. Mahendran’s invitation to be her teaching assistant for a three-week Keystone Archway Summer Program on DNA science for middle school students. What could have been a supporting role became an enriching hands-on experience for Jane.

“She noticed that the participants developed their knowledge quickly in the first week of the program,” Ms. Mahendran shares. “Jane approached and asked me if she and her co-assistant William Yu (from the same grade) could lead an experiment because they knew that the students were ‘ready’. I agreed, and what happened next was so impressive. They modified a plasmid to make bacteria glow!”

Besides these achievements, Jane considers her collaborations with eleventh-grader Ariel Chen as among the most important moments of her high school life, especially as they relate to animal and environmental protection. One of the projects they have worked on together was Ariel’s Animals Around Us fundraiser initiative, where she used donations to purchase infrared cameras and install them in several protected areas in Beijing to observe how wildlife grapples with urbanization. Jane assisted Ariel by piecing together footage and designing graphic materials for the documentary Leopard Cats in the Capital, which they premiered in October 2020. Later in the year, the duo teamed up again for another project, following Jane’s eye-opening encounter in a small private zoo in Shunyi District, some three kilometers away from the school. The plight of tigers and black bears locked up inside squalid cages reminded Jane of the struggling mastiff in her neighborhood. The duo launched an investigation into the zoo in question and tracked down the more significant issue of neglected animal welfare. Jane likens the problem to “a malignant tumor [that] metastasizes as the current legal system overlooks it and the ignorant public and visitors enable it.”

As the zoo refused to cooperate and temporarily closed due to pandemic regulations, Jane and Ariel changed the focus of their project and named it Wildlife Neighbors Conservation Platform, an educational channel about animal welfare. Jane intends to continue this collaborative project as she gets on with her biology studies at the University of Oxford. She aims to specialize in ecology, zoology, and evolutionary studies to inform her future projects related to protecting wildlife.

Jane has published on Bilibili a public advocacy video about animal welfare and designed “enrichment toys” that would give zoo animals a “sense of being in nature”.  The duo has expanded the Wildlife Neighbors initiative and opened an immersive exhibition about the status of local ecosystems. They aim to inform the public about the effectiveness and shortcomings of current conservation measures and the efforts that everyone can make to help conserve urban wildlife.

“As I join these initiatives, it becomes clearer to me why grandma has said that humans are special,” Jane reflects. “Our intelligence allows us to manipulate our ways of living, the environment, and other species. This gives us the great responsibility to decide how to use that for good. And it is in these moments when I understand that I always have the power to unleash the mastiff.”

 

Beat the Odds: Kevin Zhang turns chance encounters into transformative lessons

Between one in 23 and one in 3,695.

No matter how many calculations or simulations Kevin Zhang made, his odds of getting accepted into the University of Oxford teetered between that range. He had combined every piece of data he had, but there were so many unknown factors that attempting to predict the outcome drove him crazy. He also recalled the frightening ordeal that happened on the very day of his interview—of all the days—when he was rushed to the hospital after accidentally hitting his face with a pair of shuāng qiāng (double-headed Chinese spears) during a rehearsal for a wushu performance.

At that moment, math manifested itself to Kevin. The nerve-wracking emotions and paralyzing uncertainties that every other Oxford hopeful from 2021 and all other preceding years had felt also hit him.

“But there is still a chance,” Kevin thought at the time. “You cannot give up that chance, however small that is.”

Kevin has a knack for seeing things through math, even though he previously thought it was “boring”. It is incredible, he says, how an abstract discipline can express beauty in nature and become the foundation of the world we live in. On the streets of Beijing, he often finds himself lost in the elegant monotony of brickwork or gripped by the harmony of angles in buildings and public spaces. Meanwhile, in his math classes at Keystone, Kevin takes on a complicated problem with ease, solving it with a method that has yet to be taught by his teachers. His secret: he finds workarounds from the lessons he has already learned, because he is sure they are connected somehow, just like puzzles.

Kevin’s prowess in math has been recognized by many teachers, some of whom have invited him to be a guest lecturer in their classes. He has always and happily accepted the offers because of his vision to guide students already interested in the subject and reach out to peers “who feel that math is their worst nightmare”, hoping that he can get even one of them to appreciate math. One of the Middle School Math teachers, Amanda Shen, has tapped Kevin to be her teaching assistant several times: first, in her Math Club, when he was in Grade 9, and most recently, in her 2021 summer program on number theory, where he helped design the course, create problem sets for participants, and teach actual lessons.

Kevin has consistently challenged his math knowledge through self-study or joining local and global math competitions. In the summer of 2020, he joined the Pioneer Academics program and worked with Professor Nuh Aydin, Ph.D., on a research paper on coding theory and cryptography using the typesetting system LaTeX (pronounced as “lay-tech”). Professor Aydin noted that Kevin “found an interesting result, which may not be in the literature”, calling it “exceptional and beyond the requirements of this program.” In the following semester, Kevin led the Keystone team to a top 10% finish at the ASDAN Math Tournament (AMT), alongside continuing his Pioneer study with Professor Aydin (who agreed to mentor him pro bono), and finding newer and more conclusive results. His research won him the first prize in northern China at the Shing-Tung Yau High School Mathematics Awards, a prestigious program that encourages and acknowledges students whose research projects strengthen foundational mathematics and creatively apply mathematical tools to solve problems.

In all these endeavors, Kevin found a strong mentor in his former Math teacher, Jason Roy, whom he considers as the “most important teacher in my life”.  Their strong bond began five years ago, when Mr. Roy joined Keystone and met the then-eighth-grader Kevin, who was also a newcomer. Mr. Roy fondly recalls how Kevin eased him into life in Beijing in ways as simple as teaching him smartphone tricks to open package mailboxes or introducing him to specialty restaurants near the school. Over the years as campus residents, the teacher-student duo developed their common interest in board games and puzzles, to the point that they have tried to outplay each other. This ignited Kevin’s interest in combinatorial game theory, which he has applied in his guest lecturing sessions to engage with his younger peers, and even in research. Aside from his cryptography paper for Pioneer Academics, Kevin dug deeper into combinatorial game theory for his Extended Essay supervised by Mr. Roy. For the teacher, this branch of mathematics befits Kevin, as “he already knows so much, and better than me, honestly, because he just keeps on going,” adding that university-level math should open a new world for Kevin.

In mid-December 2021, the Oxford application results were released. Although his predictions had shown a slim chance, Kevin still held on.

He made it.

Kevin is one of the 3,600 students offered undergraduate admission into Oxford in 2022. When Mr. Roy found it out, he quickly rushed to Kevin’s dorm room to congratulate his young friend. There he saw Kevin and his best friends Michael Chang and Eric Zhu, already celebrating. Kevin cannot wrap his head around the fact he will study at Oxford—or “one of the best places in the world to study math”—and the chance to become a student of Sir Andrew Wiles, the Oxford professor and English mathematician who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, which had been one of the elusive propositions in number theory. Kevin feels ready for this opportunity to broaden his horizons and connect with some of the greatest minds in mathematics.

Whenever Kevin looks back at his experiences in the past five years, he feels he is living a “life full of knowledge, ideas, and qualities.”

“But what if I forget?” he also ponders. “What if I forget the knowledge I have learned after one, two, or maybe ten years? What’s the point of me learning from life?”

Kevin recalls his visit to the Korean War Memorial in Washington in 2017, when he met a war veteran by chance. The soldier, who mistook Kevin and his parents as Koreans, greeted the Zhang family warmly and talked to them about the horrors of war. Kevin realized that he could learn so much from random experiences or people that he would encounter in the future.

“Life itself is my teacher,” he reflects. “Knowledge is technical, but as I convert it into wisdom and use it to support and contribute to the community around me, it becomes truly meaningful and special. For me, this is the point of learning.”

 

A Person of Substance: Michael Chang powers up the community by teaching young minds

A primary school student may wonder why the clocks in the painting The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali appear melting. There have been many interpretations of what is widely considered the Spanish painter’s most notable work, including one that explains his possible views about the relativity of space and time. When the then-nine-year-old Michael Chang first encountered the artwork—on one of the pages of the book All You Need to Know About Relativity, stacked in their classroom shelf—he was drawn by its fantastical depiction of time and how it operates in the natural world.

Michael’s interest in natural science has grown over the years since that encounter. After joining Keystone in 2017, he has conducted numerous experiments or turned academic requirements into scientific investigations. For his tenth-grade Keystone Capstone Project, Michael compared ancient western and Chinese alchemy and found similarities in their philosophical bases and differences in their perception of the elements that made the world. From this analysis, Michael noted how the resulting innovations and discoveries in medieval alchemy had revolutionized the attitudes and technologies of modern civilizations.

Some of Michael’s most recent scientific investigations relate to electrical chemistry, following his productive participation in virtual courses offered by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Stanford University in the summer of 2020. There, he learned advanced topics on electrical conductivity and quantum mechanics, which he explored further in his twelfth-grade Extended Essay where he tested the photoelectric effect within light-dependent resistors. Michael is excited about the prospect of investigating deeper into superconductors as he will take on a natural science major at the University of Cambridge (or possibly at Harvard University or Stanford University, where he also applied), hoping to find out breakthroughs in power storage and battery technology.

“At Cambridge, this kind of major becomes my chance to learn about the interdisciplinarity of the sciences,” Michael says, “In the future, we will see how the sciences will be more connected to other branches of knowledge because the problems we face now get more and more complicated.”

Aside from scientific research, Michael also looks at the possibility of teaching in the future. On campus, he is among the senior students commonly reached out to by lower-grade peers for academic help. It is not unusual to see student boarders flocking to Michael’s room as many of them say they grasp math- or science-related concepts quite quickly when he explains or shares his learning strategies. His other friends, including Cassandra Shi, remember well their Grade 9 year, when Michael started sharing his “math review document”—a compilation of study materials with sample questions and summaries of key knowledge points—to help students prepare for summative assessments. Cassandra is thankful to Michael, who made concepts more digestible and accessible to everyone, especially those who needed math guidance. This document laid the foundation of Michael’s tenth-grade Personal Project product, a “Mathematics Study Guide” microsite of explanations of concepts and math vocabulary, problem examples, and review materials. Michael is currently a student instructor for the Keystone Math Club, where he also designs specialized and extended lectures for students with different math abilities. On the sidelines of his tutoring activities, Michael is also a broadcaster and manager of the school’s student-run radio station. Over the past two years, he has trained newcomers to write and review scripts, in addition to producing and editing daily broadcasts and supervising the roster of existing presenters.

One of the most fruitful teaching and leadership experiences that Michael has had at Keystone happened in his participation in teams that represented the school in the China and global rounds of the United States Academic Decathlon (USAD). In the 2020 edition, he led a group of nine students to a seventh-place finish nationwide despite being a first-time USAD participant. The Keystone team came back stronger in the 2021 contest after winning the National Gold medal for being the top team in China, and the International Silver medal as they were the only Chinese team that won a prize in the global rounds. In addition, Michael also clinched several individual awards, including a silver medal in the China national contest, and two gold and three bronze medals for the international rounds. In his senior year, Michael launched a club to pass his contest experience onto Keystone’s next student representatives at USAD and other similar academic competitions. One of the team members, Eric Zhu, notes how their captain Michael planned their strategies to tackle and link ten subjects without losing focus.

“With him,” Eric continues, “we feel at ease and confident. Every one of us is inspired to be at the top of our game. Not only does he lead our way, but he walks together with us—he puts himself in our shoes as a learner and a team member. His leadership is growth-oriented, and I will not be surprised if he becomes a teacher in the future.”

“Teaching others is a rewarding task,” Michael says, “because you use your expertise to help others in need. What better feeling than knowing some of the students I have helped can change the world in their own ways? That gives me a sense of achievement.”

Michael has extended his influence beyond the Keystone community. An active member of Keystone’s wushu club, Michael has become a formidable martial artist following his recognitions in various city-wide and regional competitions since 2018. In autumn of 2019, he founded the Descendants of the Dragon martial arts club—his CAS project—so he and his friends could volunteer and teach wushu to students of Tongxin Academy, a school for migrant children in Beijing. Their sessions have been suspended since 2020, but some of Michael’s kung fu students continue practicing independently. The academy principal sent Michael a video of one student performing the drills he taught during their on-site class. In these moments, Michael says, he feels that his “small actions really impact others,” which strengthens his desire to teach.

“I have this power—the knowledge, skills, and privilege—and I want to use it to influence more people positively,” he says. “As a lifelong learner, I know that I will fulfill my greatest curiosities anywhere I go, whichever college or university accepts me. But what matters to me is that I want to give back as much as possible, both as a researcher and science educator. If it is a way to make the world a better place, I am up for it!

 


 

With additional reporting from Zheng Muen

Special thanks to Nick Daniel, Feng Qiongqiong, Percy Jiang, Li Yumeng, Liu Yanni, Sindhura Mahendran, Bill Russo, Jason Roy, Baldeep Sawhney, Amanda Shen, Trisha Power, Wei Yichen, Zhang Yingshen, and Zhu Junrong.