SCHOOL SCIENCE LAB MOVES OUTDOORS
New science programmes highlight environmental dangers By Anchalee Kongrut
What is your most lasting memory of the science laboratory? Do you remember the sedate lab room and oddlooking scientific equipment with eccentric names such as burette, pipette and crucible?
Mine? I ruefully admit that the science laboratory of my beloved alma mater — the place that should have inspired us to emulate Marie Curie — was imbued with the aura of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Our science laboratory was an endearing chamber of horrors. Sneaking into it was a big adventure: Its eerily quiet and detached location, cold and polished tiles and, on top of everything, big and small jars filled with dead creatures.
This lab would not have lived up to its gothic semblance had the preserved creatures just been frogs, worms or guinea pigs. Instead the jars held small foetuses — unborn babies (with umbilical cords!) preserved in yellow fluid.
No one knew where these unfortunate babes came from; they were called dek dorng (preserved babies). Urban legend had that these preserved babies had been there ‘‘before’’, hence they would be older than me if they had survived. Our science teacher never told us and we never found the voice to ask.
That may explain my below-par science literacy. Perhaps it was more fun looking at those mysterious jars than seeking the truth behind them. Perhaps it was a past education system that overly emphasised the textbook and ignored our surroundings, despite how close they were to us.
I started to wonder what science classes are like nowadays.
This is an interesting question because we are living in an era of consequences, and environmental problems have become a clear and present danger. Is science education preparing the future generation to prevent catastrophe or merely cope with it?
I finally found my ideal science class two weeks ago, after I attended two small classes.
The first was held at the Thai-Japanese Association School in Bangkok.
The school had guest teachers from Japan: staff of the major clean energy producer Sanyo Electric Group who teach elementary school students about the environmental effects of energy consumption and introduce the concept of renewable energy to youngsters.
Apart from basic lessons on energy sources, environmental problems and the principle of waste recycling, the guest instructors challenged students to do simple maths — comparing long-term costs — and study the social and environmental effects of using dry cell batteries as opposed to rechargeable batteries which despite being four times as expensive are friendlier to the environment.
Another eye-opening event was a water monitoring trip to the Chao Phraya River, collecting water samples to present at World Water Monitoring Day on December 18. SLP International (an environmental consultancy firm), the Prem Magic Eyes Barge Programme and Green Networking Days (a civic group of members of Bangkok’s expatriate community) launched the campaign in Thailand along with other groups in 43 countries.
The Prem Magic Eyes Barge often conducts educational field trips for students. But for this trip, the participants consisted of around 20 adults and many of them — like me — were clueless about jargon such as DO (dissolved oxygen), pH level or turbidity.
The excitement was not only in being taught to use these biological testing kits, or seeing murky river water magically change into orange, then violet and grey colours after adding a few drops of chemicals. The fun part was learning about the connections between us and nature, and understanding the chains of consequences in ecology — how beverage factories by the river that depend on water resources damage the river, how concrete banks and urbanisation affect temperature and water quality, to name a few.
The Prem Magic Eyes Barge has conducted such trips for students since 1995 and students have been taught not only biology but other related activities such as ecology, land use, culture and even local business. For instance, for a trip to Koh Kret in Pathum Thani province, students were tasked with research activities such as social interactions, the pottery business, land use, tourism and environmental problems to map out a sustainable development plan for the community.
That should become material for a reality show on television!
These trips are only an example of many good science classes available for children. Another recent programme is Nak Sueb Sainam (River Detectives) which was pioneered by ecologist Saranrat Kanjanavanit. Children are taught to determine the water quality in their communities by observing aquatic animals and plants and recording data in the form of drawings. Now many schools by canals put Nak Sueb Sainam in their extracurricular plans. Or if you love art and science, the Dek Rak Pa camp will teach you about forest ecology and drawing at the same time.
I do not know whether to envy or sympathise with these children. In my day, science class and related activities were textbook-based. But our environment in the past was much less problematic.
Obviously, we are living in era of consequences and perhaps what we can do — if we cannot pass on to the next generation a better or at least similar planet to the one our ancestors gave us — is make sure children grow up environmentally and scientifically literate.
Peek into your children’s science textbook. Compare your experiences in laboratory class.
As there are plenty of environmental camps, sign up for them. Send children to national parks, or on canal trips.
And if possible, join these activities if you can because you may realise that it is you — not your children — who seriously needs this type of education.