Dr Abigayle Ng (left) and alumnus Sean Yap at the Biodiversity Pond

By Divya Muthiah (14S06C), Lim Shaomin (14S03K), Kylie Wong (14A01B), Tan Jun Xiang (14S06C), and Izzat Rashad B Rosazizi (3T)

While it’s one thing for RI to have eco-friendly initiatives, as a school, its strength lies in the educational experiences it offers. We ask RI staff as well as young alumni who are deeply concerned about the environment what a truly green education might encompass.

When you hear the words ‘green education’, what do you picture? Chances are, these are probably the typical images that form in your mind—global warming, climate change, polar bears on melting glaciers. for many, the mention of a ‘green education’ is met with studied indifference. We all know that the environment is important, but when you spend hours every day trying to prioritise between studying, meeting deadlines and finding time to rest and relax, it is difficult to consider the vast landscape around us as a fragile, beautiful place that actually requires our protection.

 

It is not an easy issue to tackle. How exactly does one foster an entire culture built around giving back to an environment we spend most of our lives taking from? The issue is made even worse in the pragmatic society of Singapore, where ideals and goals are often evaluated based on the extent to which they bring about material benefits.

However, let us not make the sweeping generalisation that all Rafflesians lack interest in environmental conservation. With the support and influence of a few of our dedicated biology staff members, a few of our alumni are helping to further the cause of nature conservation in Singapore.

In this piece, we speak with Dr Abigayle Ng (Research Specialist, Raffles Science Institute/Open Labs, Year 5–6) and Dr Jeffrey Lee (Senior Scientist, biology, Year 1–4), as well as three ex-students of Dr Ng—Jocelyne Sze, Sean Yap and Tan Mei Jia (all from the RI Class of 2010), who have gone on to make remarkable contributions to nature conservation efforts in Singapore. With the help of Dr Ng and the Open Labs management, her ex-students developed a keen interest in the environment during their Year 5–6 days and have gone on to pursue this passion even after graduation.

from left to right: Tan Mei Jia, Jocelyne Sze, Ernest Aw, Dr Abigayle Ng, Sean Yap and Samuel Tan
From left to right: Tan Mei Jia, Jocelyne Sze, Ernest Aw, Dr Abigayle Ng, Sean Yap and Samuel Tan

A brief profile of the interviewees:

Jocelyne Sze worked in the Raffles Museum of biodiversity and NParks, and is involved in a number of volunteer work groups in Singapore. She is currently studying in the university of Cambridge, uK, and even started her own nature society there.

Tan Mei Jia was involved in Youth Advocacy for the Environment and is currently studying in Middlebury College, uSA, where she is interested in both politics and conservation.

Find out more about Sean Yap in his article, ‘Natural History in an Urban Jungle’.

How would you define a green education in a Singaporean context?

Jocelyne: I think Singaporeans are, at least, well-educated in terms of not littering and the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle), and that is because of the size of our island. We have to take steps to reduce the amount of trash generated or we will eventually be overrun by it. Anyway, that’s considered green as well, but that’s not quite what we’re after. It is our ecological education—in the sense of the richness of biodiversity we have on our island—that is lacking.

The situation is definitely improving though. The kids now get a lot more of it than we did. I know kindergartens have some kind of programme where they go outdoors and learn about the environment. Primary Ones and Twos also have outdoor education in certain schools. In Primary Three and four you learn about life cycles, the trees in Singapore and the like. I think secondary schools and junior colleges are lagging behind in that aspect, unfortunately. Everything just drops off once you go to secondary school, because there are O and A-Levels, and all the students learn about is just molecular and life sciences.

RI students participating in the Marine Education programme in St John’s Island
RI students participating in the Marine Education programme in St John’s Island

Mei Jia: There might be some options for enrichment and the like, because that’s what we did. A lot of us were in the Raffles Ecological Literacy Programme from the then Raffles Institute of Experiential Learning, which is now called the Raffles Leadership Institute. We had a space and a time to talk not just about environmental issues but also conservation in general.

Jocelyne: This is probably only possible in schools that have the luxury of resources and time to do it. In many other schools, they can only focus on their O or A-Level curriculum, and they don’t have teachers who really prioritise it.

Dr Lee: For me, a green education consists of different levels. First, we have to increase awareness, because some people are completely unaware that there are even interesting things that live in our forests that can be studied. We are more familiar with the foreign life forms we see on National Geographic, but what we don’t realise is that there are many interesting things that can be studied in our own backyard, like at Macritchie Reservoir.

The next step would be to explore the flora and fauna of Singapore. You need to have these projects where you get to actually look at it more deeply and start finding that there are actually so many things that you can learn about it. The last step would be engagement. Once you know more about our own life forms, you will then want to protect them. That would be the ultimate aim of green education—to allow people to see value in these natural things.

What efforts has the school made thus far to promote eco-awareness among students? For instance, what purpose does the Biodiversity Pond serve?

Dr Ng: To be honest, there was already going to be a water feature anyway, like a koi pond or something. The biodiversity part was the initiative of Dr Loo, Mrs Foo (who’s in charge of the Raffles Society of Biological Science and some other Bio teachers, who wanted the pond to be populated only with native animals. Initially, we consulted the Raffles Museum of biodiversity Research to ensure that the fish in the pond would all be native, and we actually got some students to write a book describing the different species of animals in the pond!

Unfortunately, the plants are a different issue altogether, because horticulturists have a different idea of what plants should be planted where. The animal life is supposed to be native, but along the way, some people have been releasing non-native species in it. I think there’s a soft-shell turtle, though I can’t figure out its species.

The other thing is that most of the fish, like the pacu—the big black fish, which is actually not a native species—and the catfish can be eaten. Some of them are actually quite juicy. Basically, the pond is meant to be educational.

Mei Jia: As an alumni coming back to school, it’s really nice to see how the walkway from Marymount has changed—it used to just be grass, but now there are so many different plants, and all the creepers along the walkway. Seeing these things—even if they don’t have a direct link to our curriculum and stuff—makes coming back here very pleasant.

Dr Ng: Actually, the walkway is where the Butterfly Project is. Some of the Biology teachers have, in their own time, been purchasing plants for the garden. They chose specific plants that are hosts for the caterpillars of some butterflies, and this has actually resulted in more butterflies appearing around RI over the last few months, if you’ve noticed. Most of the butterflies are Plain Tigers—the orange, white and black ones—that have been attracted by the blood-flowers planted around the walkway, and blocks A and b. There are so many of them around and I think they really enhance the place! (Read more about the flora and fauna of RI here!)

Dr Jeffrey Lee in his lab
Dr Jeffrey Lee in his lab

Dr Lee: I think it’s a really good sign that students are becoming more proactive in engaging with the environment. It’s so much more effective when these efforts are student-driven rather than being part of the curriculum, because the buy-in and take-up by the student population will be higher. If it’s just something that’s being taught, you might feel a bit distant from it. but if it’s started by students themselves, it becomes more authentic and heartfelt.

How do you think we can get the entire student population involved in this eco-friendly effort? 

Dr Ng: It’s very important to have some people who are ambassadors. It’s not so much about converting other people, but at least exposing them so they know about it. We don’t need to see a change right here right now, but it could be later on in life when they go to university or start working.

Dr Lee: It’s hard to get everyone involved in it because we all have different interests and different motivations. But maybe we can at least make everyone aware of environmental issues, and then there might be a few people who become very passionate about them and this provides opportunities for other students as well. For example, if there’s a project being organised, students can join in and help. And after that they go back and start something on their own. So it becomes a self- perpetuating cycle rather than something forced on everyone.

I don’t think coercion is an effective method, and it might even be counter-productive. Nature conservation, after all, is something that you have to actually feel for and want to do something about. If you just go around forcing people to plant trees, it won’t work out in the long run. Just like nature, it has to be organic. It must take root by itself.

If you could have a dream school in terms of nature conservation, how would you envision it to be like? 

Jocelyne volunteering with TeamSeagrass at Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin
Jocelyne volunteering with TeamSeagrass at Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin

Jocelyne: For many of us, it’s not just about a nature education, but the way the whole school system in Singapore is structured. Instead of a rigid classroom structure, we should have more experiential learning and going outdoors because nature is outdoors. You can certainly sit here and look at guidebooks and watch documentaries and learn about nature that way, but it’s always better being out in the field. So, for me, a dream school would be more dynamic and have more fieldwork and time for people to just explore and talk on their own, instead of sitting down and writing like in primary school.

Sean: When you’re outside of the classroom, not only do you learn more about nature, there is also more room to be creative. You’re not just going to your classroom, sitting at the same seat, going through the same routine every day in the timetable. I think a break in routine would also encourage more students to ask questions—our education system is so focused on making students answer questions that they are often afraid to ask questions of their own.

Dr Ng: I agree, but incorporating this into the syllabus would also mean that we would have to test students on how good they are in this subject. Having a passion for biodiversity and the environment is an innate thing; it is something that you carry for the rest of your life, unlike your studies at school, which you may not always remember. Caring for the environment is a kind of affinity that is hard to test for.

One way that Singapore’s education system can be improved is to allow for more pockets of time for people to explore different interests. We’re not saying that everybody must be interested in nature, but they could have other passions that are not A-Level or syllabus-related also, and some time to explore those would be nice.

With that being said, I think this school is, for me, already almost a dream school because students have been given some pockets of time to pursue their own interests. They do have that time to do things for the environment, and the school provides resources and facilities and supports their initiatives.

Mei Jia: The main problem with the system is that it’s very difficult to measure how much you’ve learnt outside the classroom. Inside the classroom it’s very easy—you get this question correct, you get your points. but how about somebody who spent a weekend on the rocky shores and learnt so much about the different species of sponges and sea shells? How do you measure things like that if your system doesn’t have anything that places value on it? Well, it’s going to be a tough journey.

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