The rain­for­est as a class­room

RAIN FOR­EST MAK­ERS Move over Gar­den­ing 101; these stu­dents are grow­ing their own rain­for­est. Is the rain­for­est self-sus­tain­ing?

Expat Living (Singapore) - - Contents -

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

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