4th Singapore International Science Teachers' Conference 2019 Opening Address by Ms Indranee Rajah Second Minister for Education

Published Date: 19 November 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr Wong Siew Hoong, Director-General of Education

Mr Jay Mahardale, Chairman of the Science Teachers Association of Singapore

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

Introduction

1. I am privileged and happy to be here with you today at the 4th Singapore International Science Teachers' Conference 2019.

2. Science is such an amazing subject. It basically underpins everything we do and who we are. Recently, the second of the Voyager spacecrafts left our solar system and entered interstellar space. You can see how amazing that is. We are a small little planet – and somehow we have sent a spacecraft into the stars. But on the other end of the spectrum, we drill down to quantum physics – right down to the little atoms. We probe deeper and deeper as we try to figure out what goes on in the atoms. That is what science is like. It has depth and breadth and it explains the world to us, helping us make discoveries. And that is really the role of science teachers – to help students shape the world as they learn to understand science and apply it.

3. It is even more significant for Singapore to embrace the rapid advancement of science and technology to stay competitive and relevant in the world. Our education system is key to developing our citizens and talents who understand the importance of science and contribute to the advancement of science and technology.

4. As teachers, you play an important role of not just building and growing your students' knowledge, but sparking a love for science and inspiring them to exercise their imagination. In its 2015 study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked Singapore students first for mathematics and science, out of 72 participating countries and economies. More importantly, the survey results also showed that Singapore students enjoyed learning science as their teachers made learning authentic and relevant. This is very encouraging, and we must continue to keep our students engaged and curious.

5. Today, I will speak about three areas which I think are crucial in our science education and delivery. First, we must foster the joy of learning of science. Second, alongside the teaching of science, we must equip students with values and soft skills. Third, I encourage teachers to keep updated on innovative pedagogies for science education and on science and technology trends.

Fostering Joy of Learning of Science

6. Steve Jobs famously said, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do". Our science education already provides a strong foundation of STEM knowledge through both formal and informal learning. We must build on this, and foster the joy of learning science in our students.

7. One way we have done so is to encourage more applied learning. The STEM Applied Learning Programme (ALP) is one of the key programmes in our schools to promote learning and application in this area. This has been rolled out to 40 Primary and 66 Secondary schools. Through the STEM ALP, students learn how to use scientific inquiry models to tackle real world problems.

8. I visited one of the schools with the STEM ALP where they showed me how they did a little video using stop-motion animation to spread anti-terrorism messages. I sent this video to SGSecure at the Ministry of Home Affairs. They were impressed by it because it was very simple and easy for people to understand – so they sent the teachers and students a thank-you hamper. Even though that video was produced in a school programme, it actually has a public education function. I have also put it on my Facebook simply because it was easy to understand. It shows how the students are learning to apply science and how things that they learnt in school can be relevant and meaningful in everyday life.

9. Another example is at Compassvale Secondary School where students learn about the science behind flight in their Aeronautics ALP. Students learn how to control drones, and eventually apply basic programming skills to teach their drones how to complete an obstacle course autonomously. Not all students were interested in this at first. In particular, one of their students – Keane – had shown lacklustre interest. However, after much encouragement from the ALP teachers and having observed the enthusiasm of seniors and peers, Keane grew motivated to hone his own drone flying and programing skills, he and his team mates even attained an award for the Best Learning Journey at the Drone Odyssey Challenge hosted by the Science Centre, for their creative application and showcase of what they had learnt.

10. It is encouraging to also see how teachers are bringing STEM alive in their day-to-day teaching. Dr Muhammad Nazir bin Amir, who was previously a Lead Teacher for Physics, is one such example. Nazir actively explored various teaching approaches, and developed the 'Relevant, Appealing, Personal' (or 'R.A.P.') pedagogy. For example, to teach his Secondary 1 Normal (Technical) class the concepts of density and solutions, he challenged his students to think of ways to make a ketchup packet float in water. To nudge them along and relate how textbook scientific principles were relevant to the real world, he integrated examples such as media clips of people floating on the Dead Sea.

11. Nazir applied R.A.P. to teach other scientific concepts too. Inspired by him, some of these students went further in subsequent Design and Technology lessons to apply their scientific understanding to invent solutions to real-world issues. These included an electronic device fitted to rubber rifles to help NCC cadets improve their marksmanship. For their inventiveness, a number of these students received awards such as the Tan Kah Kee Young Inventors' Award. This 'R.A.P.' pedagogy was such a hit that his fellow teachers started designing 'R.A.P.-infused' lessons to teach content in other subjects such as Math and English. Through these 'R.A.P.' lessons, other than gaining content, the teachers facilitated students to move from "having to learn" to "wanting to learn".

Equipping Students with Values, Ethics, Attitudes and Soft Skills

12. Second, as we teach students content like the laws of physics or how chemical reactions work, we must also ensure our students are grounded in values, ethics and attitudes. While science and technology are neutral, their usage is not. For example, the significant advancement in gene editing technology has countless beneficial applications, including treating some of the worst diseases such as cancer. However, it raises serious ethical questions such as whether this technology should be used to create designer babies.

13. In the digital world, computer algorithms have automated decision-making in numerous instances. Yet, these algorithms can be just as fraught with human prejudices because of the unintended bias in their creator, or the data they are trained on. For example, a financial institution might reject a home loan application, derailing the aspirations of a prospective homeowner, on the basis of an algorithm discriminating between genders, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Encrypted messaging apps, while widely appreciated for their added security, have also had unintended consequences of easing communication among terrorists and facilitating exploitation of children through the circulation of pornographic material. Questions such as how we might strengthen processes to avoid biased algorithms, or whether messaging platforms should be held responsible for the content distributed through its network, are matters that our students must be able to consider thoughtfully. Given the rate of technological development, there will likely be new ethical questions when our students graduate from our education system. It is the values, ethics, and attitudes that will serve as their guide as they grapple with these issues.

14. At school, there are many opportunities for students to engage in discourse on these matters, and develop an informed set of values, ethics and attitudes. One of the Practices of Science as reflected in the revised science curriculum involves relating Science-Technology-Society-Environment (STSE). Here, teachers are encouraged to foster an awareness and appreciation of values and ethical implications of science. For example, I have heard of teachers facilitating discussion about challenging socio-scientific issues through role play, where students take different stands based on scientific evidence and ethical principles. I am excited to learn that there will be various presentations and workshops at this conference which will share more about pedagogical practices to imbue values, ethics, and attitudes in science lessons.

15. Soft skills such as communication skills are essential for our students to thrive in life. You may be the most creative inventor or the most brilliant scientist in the world, but without the ability to communicate his or her ideas well, he or she is unlikely to be able to get the funding to commercialise the invention or continue the research. Teamwork too is becoming increasingly important. For example, if we look at the history of the Nobel Prize science winners over the course of the last century, we would observe that the prize is increasingly shared among more than one eminent scientist. Of course, these soft skills are not unique to the world of science; the ability to communicate and collaborate well are among the top skills needed to thrive in today's world of work.

16. As teachers, you have the chance to imbue informal opportunities to develop these soft skills in your lessons, and I encourage you to do so. For example, Mr Tan Ping Hock who teaches at Catholic High School, encourages team-based learning in his classroom. He first asks students to read up on an assigned topic, then asks them to answer difficult multiple-choice questions. Without telling them how they fared, he then groups students into teams comprising students of different abilities, and asks them to agree on an answer to the same multiple-choice questions as a team. The stronger students end up helping the weaker ones. After Mr Tan reveals the answers, he invites students who had given the wrong answers individually to share why they changed their minds when they joined their teams. His students not only learn how to work in a team, but learn mentoring and debating skills as well.

Professional Development

17. Finally, professional development. Teachers play a crucial part in the delivery of science education. We take great pride in our teaching fraternity, many of whom have gone above and beyond in teaching science.

18. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge in particular, the winners of this year's Outstanding STEM Teacher Award (OSTA (STEM)). One of our OSTA winners, Mr Patrick Ang, has played a pivotal role in designing the STEM ALP in Changkat Changi Secondary School. Students get to tinker with materials to build balloon-propelled gliders from scratch using principles of flight. I can only imagine how much joy the students experience seeing their creations fly across the classrooms! I wish school was like that in my time!

19. Another OSTA winner is Mdm Parvathy from Rosyth School. In her science lessons, her students are encouraged to apply science concepts to develop solutions for real-life problems. In one of Mdm Parvathy's lessons, students created products that could help the elderly see better in the dark. One creative product her students developed was to fix LEDs on bedroom slippers that would light up when you get out of bed. Mdm Parvathy also facilitated peer feedback and emphasised to students that a successful product required many rounds of improvement. I am heartened that examples like that of Mr Ang and Mdm Parvathy are not rare.

20. Events like the SISTC are useful platforms for teachers to share effective practices and innovative strategies in the delivery of science education for our students. I encourage teachers to also keep up to date on scientific trends around the world, so you can use current examples students may be able to relate to and to spark their interest.

Conclusion

21. Over the next two days, I am sure you will pick up many insights from speakers, which will spark new ideas in your teaching of science. I hope you also get the chance to interact with fellow practitioners and explore new ideas together.

22. I wish you a fruitful time of sharing and learning at the Singapore International Science Teachers' Conference 2019!

23. Thank you.

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