In 2008, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) held a half-year discussion on education that has profoundly enriched its educational philosophy summarized as the trinity of “knowledge exploration, capacity enhancement and character development”. In June 2009, 31 candidates were selected from the first-year undergraduate student body for the newly founded SJTU Science Class - a step towards elite education. Growing from the class, Zhiyuan College was chartered in January 2010. It was designed to be a special area in which the top students are focused on basic disciplines. Honorary Dean Zhang Jie directly leads the college that is fully committed to “bringing up scientific leaders of tomorrow who with creativity, critical thought and solid knowledge of mathematics and physics rejoice in discovery and serving society”. In December 2010, the Zhiyuan College-based SJTU Pilot Program for Training Outstanding Students in the Basic Sciences was included into the National Pilot Project of the Education System Reform.
Today, Zhiyuan has seven undergraduate programs: Mathematics, Physics, Life Science, Computer Science, Chemistry, Biomedical Science and Engineering. In 2014, the talent training model of Zhiyuan College won the first-class award of National Teaching Achievement Award, and SJTU started to implement “Zhiyuan Honors Program” on the top 10% students based on the successful “Zhiyuan” model afterwards. In 2015, "Zhiyuan Talent-training Mode" has won the grand prize of national education reform and innovation, and was granted with "Curiosity Award" and "National Science Award" by Wharton-QS Stars Reimagine Education. In 2019, "Zhiyuan Honors Program" ranked 1st at ten-year evaluation of national honors program, and 6 disciplines of Zhiyuan College are admitted into "Pilot Program 2.0" in 2020.
Each year, Zhiyuan admits over 400 students from the best high schools in the country. In addition to having a strong academic record, students are selected who show a strong interest and the potential to pursue a research career. Collaborating with other departments, especially the Institute of Natural Sciences (INS) at the university, Zhiyuan provides the students a rich learning environment with the best facilities and faculty in the nation. Zhiyuan emphasizes interdisciplinary training, small classroom teaching, individual mentoring and fosters an awareness of current cutting-edge research. It is expected that all graduates of Zhiyuan will perform among the top 5% of students in the world and that most of them will continue on to postgraduate studies. As a focused area at the university, Zhiyuan College has achieved notable success in cultivating top-notch talents.
With sharpened personal qualities, among others, the ability to raise significant questions, the students of Zhiyuan have left a deep impression on professors from both home and abroad. “My students at Zhiyuan and Cornell are equally talented,” says Professor Hopcroft from Cornell University, A.M. Turing Award laureate, instructor of Mathematics in Computer Science. “The difference is Zhiyuan’s proportion is much bigger.” “As I can see in discussion class, they are very good at answering questions and understanding the latest academic papers, even better than some postgraduates,” observes Professor Zou Yimin from University of California, San Diego who teaches Cell Biology.
The college has given full play to its students’ creativity and potential in scientific research. By May 2023, 1638 students have graduated from Zhiyuan College, among which, 93% of the graduates have chosen to pursue further studies, and 70% of the graduates are pursuing PhD Degrees.
Under an administration that stressed shared resources and disciplinary constructions, Zhiyuan College has recruited a group of eminent scholars from around the world, serving as a model for colleges and universities throughout the country. If needed and allowed, all the finest recourses the college enjoys are available to the other colleges on campus. In addition to offering lectures and instruction, the visiting professors are invited to take part in disciplinary constructions that help train young teachers and introduce distinguished researchers into the faculty enhancing overall competence in teaching and research.
The achievements obtained over the past years indicates that Chinese universities are able to find the way of nurturing future creative leaders as long as the rules of their growth are followed.