The rainforest as a classroom
RAIN FOREST MAKERS Move over Gardening 101; these students are growing their own rainforest. Is the rainforest self-sustaining?
STEVE EARLY and MARTHA BEGAN are science teachers at the Singapore American School. Expat Living’s Monica Pitrelli spoke to them both about the school’s on- campus “living laboratory” rainforest.
How did the idea to create a rainforest begin?
Steve: When my wife and I first came to Singapore in 1992, SAS had three separate campuses – in Ulu Pandan, on King’s Road and at Baytree Sports Complex. The school was bursting at the seams with students and demand! When our current location in the Woodlands was offered for sale, we were all like, “Where is the Woodlands?”
Before the school was built, I brought my seventh-grade students to see the land. It was a big, open vacant lot with a stream and long grass with vacant HDB buildings nearby. It was like a ghost town. We decided to write an environmental impact statement to see how a big, new school would affect the neighbourhood from environmental, societal and cultural standpoints. The project took an entire year. We did field trips, visited hawker centres, interviewed people and explored the neighbourhood. There was a standing forest on the land, and the natural history group did bird surveys and identified plants. We found a bunch of fruit trees – including durian, star fruit and jackfruit – and we concluded the area was probably an abandoned fruit plantation. The kids wrote a letter to the school’s architects asking them to keep the forest so we could make it an outdoor classroom.
Did SAS start using the rainforest right away?
Martha: I arrived when the Woodlands campus opened in 1996, and the science teachers immediately started writing guidelines about how to use the forest. We wanted to let the vegetation renew the forest itself. We told the SAS gardeners to stop clearing trees and raking away all the leaves. Martha: The forest was a small patch that received a lot of light, and over time it began to dry out. So, we brought in botanists and asked Singapore Botanic Gardens for advice. The experts at the Botanic Gardens showed us their nurseries of exotic and endangered plants, and we learned so much from them! They taught us how to mix the soil and how their water hydrology system works. Steve took a course in urban ecology and reforestation at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, too. Then we drafted a proposal asking the school to conserve the forest and build a nursery. Steve: We realised we had to step in. This gave us the opportunity to teach students to truly understand deforestation, nursery work and rehabilitation. Humans can destroy, but they can also rehabilitate!
Was your proposal to build a nursery accepted?
Martha: Yes. The school, teachers and parents conducted fundraising events to build the nursery. It has fans, lights, running water and cement tables. We designed it based on our research at the Botanic Gardens. We turned a dream into an actual working nursery!
How many species of trees are in the rainforest?
Steve: We have well over 60 species in total, including hard milkwood, soursop, Philippine neem, lemon and coconut palms, just to name a few. We obtained others from the Botanic Gardens, raised them in the nursery, and then transplanted them into the forest.
With the daily downpours we’ve had lately, I trust watering isn’t necessary?
Martha: It rains so much here you may think it wouldn’t need watering, but our forest is an interesting place! It has evolved and adapted to being very moist all the time. The shade canopy in our forest blocks wind and light, but many fragmented forests in Southeast Asia need irrigation. Steve: We hand-water newly transported trees in the forest until they get their full root system in place. The nursery has an automatic system that waters the plants twice a day for five minutes.
How has the rainforest enhanced learning for SAS students?
Steve: My high school environmental students created a labelling system to identify and tell the story of our most charismatic trees as well as the new seedlings we planted. We will follow the growth of these trees in a long-term research study.
There are also many after- school service clubs and committees. The kids go to the forest every week and raise money for rainforest conservation. They grow culinary plants in our eco-garden in compost created entirely from SAS food waste, and they handle the endangered native saplings housed in our nursery. The elementary school has a club called the Rainforest Rangers; these kids learn how to mix soil using sand and clay, re-pot, measure and plant. Parents come in and help us with planting, too. Martha: About three years ago, one of our high school students completed AP research on abatement of mosquitos using non-chemical pesticides. She used CO2 from dry ice to trap mosquitos in the forest. Then she preserved them and took them to a research lab to identify their genders and the different types of mosquitos she caught. Another senior student investigated rainwater harvesting in the rainforest. As a result of her project, our facilities team are looking into installing a harvesting tank.
What projects are planned for the future?
Martha: Every year, I take my students to Tioman Island, and we do primary and secondary forest sampling. Next year, I plan to have students produce a report in our own forest before we go to do a comparison of our discoveries. Steve: I’d like to expand on our database that tracks the species and growth rates of the plants in our rainforest.
The SAS campus is located at 40 Woodlands Street 41. 6363 3403 | sas.edu.sg