Posted 11/01/2015 02:00PM

SAS Rainforest Plants Seeds for Passion and Learning
Kristina Doss

Fourth grade teachers Ms. Rindi Baildon and Mrs. Alice Early help students learn about the rainforest. 

Humid air and mosquitos surrounded Tanvi Dutta Gupta, a sophomore at Singapore American School, on her first walk through a rainforest. But she still describes her experience as "wonder-filled," thanks in part to her sighting of the largest moth in the world—the Atlas Moth.

Since this memorable seventh grade excursion, Tanvi has visited this particular rainforest countless times—all of which have inspired her to pursue an award-winning wildlife photography hobby, membership in clubs dealing with the environment and other global issues, as well as internships at biological research labs and a rainforest restoration project in India's Western Ghats. Eventually, she wants to pursue a career in environmental science or another biology-related field.

Tanvi didn't have to go on a field trip out in town or to a country outside of Singapore for the seeds of these passions to be planted. After all, the rainforest that inspired them all is in her school's backyard.

The convenient location, she said, allowed her and her classmates "the opportunity to develop an intimacy with the forest that a yearly trip to Sungei Buloh or walk in MacRitchie would not allow—to see the forest as something beyond a place to visit with family on a weekend but instead a place to learn from, to grow from."

The SAS rainforest, a unique and innovative resource among international schools, was saved as the school's Woodlands campus was being built thanks to the efforts in 1993 of a group of seventh grade science teachers and students.

The group routinely conducted field studies at the Ulu Pandan campus as part of the science curriculum. But there was a degree of frustration when the question of 'What was it like before our school was here?' couldn't be answered.


Cover for the 200-page study completed by 150 students.

"To a scientist (or to student scientists) the gathering of data may be important," said a December 1993 SAS Newsflash article, "Woodlands - A Creative Approach to Integrated Studies." It added, "However, it's the comparison of data showing trends and changes that provides the real challenge and excitement."

As plans for a new campus in Woodlands took shape, the article said, seventh grade science teachers saw an opportunity to study and record the environmental history of the site and the surrounding community. Over the course of three, half-day excursions, two classes of students completed vegetation surveys, one class conducted a survey of animal life, two classes went out into the surrounding neighborhood and conducted interviews with members of the community, and two classes studied archeological aspects of the Woodlands site.

"It was quite the adventure as we rambled over the huge vacant space that is now our campus, and explored the neighbourhood that is now well known to our students," said Mr. Steve Early, who at the time was in his second year as a middle school science teacher.

Ultimately, the project displayed the learning opportunities the environment could provide across a variety of disciplines.

The original 1993 rainforest proposal.

In September of 1993, science teachers Mr. Steve Early and Mr. Richard Frazier requested the purchase of the forest and wrote this letter to the campus planners. "The value as a resource is immense—from the academic to the aesthetic—from science to social studies—even to art and literature," the above letter states. "Keeping a patch of forest on school ground with its accompanying biodiversity is having an incredibly rich biological library and storehouse for no cost at all. If educational value were calculated against the monetary cost, the forest would be the best deal economically of any part of the school plan."

Photo of the SAS rainforest today.

The opening ceremonies for the Woodlands campus took place in October 1996. The new campus didn't just include technologically advanced facilities, but also a 1.58-acre patch of rainforest that students could learn in too thanks to both the letter from teachers and the study by students.

"I really don't think that the letter alone would have had the same impact if it had not come along with the 200 page impact study that the students completed," Mr. Early said.

Classes in all divisions take advantage of the opportunity the preserved patch of land provides. The fourth-grade classes of Ms. Rindi Baildon and Mrs. Alice Early, for example, study the diversity of plants.

"Most importantly we see the interconnectedness of it all: epiphytes, birds, butterflies, nectar, pollen, bats, snakes, squirrels, jackfruit, durian, starfruit, bananas, leaf litter ... everything depends on everything else," Mrs. Early said.

In the middle school, seventh grade science teachers take students up to the forest around three times a week during the third-quarter ecology unit, using the environment as a working lab to reinforce what students have learned in class that week, according to middle school science teacher Natalie Grimbergen.

Meanwhile, high school students learn sampling techniques and look into basic tropical ecology, measuring living and nonliving components, Mr. Early—now a high school biology teacher—said.

Technology also has a place in the rainforest, often being used as a guide or to help present findings, according to teachers.

For example, fourth graders use Nature Society Singapore butterfly and bird apps to help identify species, while seventh graders use Project Noah—an online tool that allows students to upload photos of animal and plant species and get citizen scientists around the world to help identify them. In the past few years alone, students have identified more than 500 species of plants, animals, insects, and fungi that call the SAS rainforest home, including rare animals such as the Green Crested Lizard, and heritage tree species such as Pulai and Terentang.

Tanvi recalls her seventh-grade project using Project Noah, along with her enthusiastic teacher Ms. Kattina Rabdau-Fox, as making a big impact on her as a student and as a person living and studying in the bustling and space-squeezed lion city.

"The realization that there is, indeed, wildlife around, and the ability to apply that knowledge by submitting collected data to scientists, and being able to share this wonder across the Internet, had a huge impact on me," said Tanvi. "Ms. Fox's - my teacher - enthusiasm for the subject was infectious, to say the least, and I spent many breaks discussing a butterfly or bird I'd seen or a possible new avenue of exploration."

The rainforest isn't just an outdoor classroom for science purposes. There is a service-learning component as well. Students are given opportunities to become stewards, helping raise awareness of the struggling patch of land, which desperately needs irrigation, by giving tours. They also contribute to its conservation by learning how to plant and nurture endemic and endangered plants that need help surviving in this modern country.

"Some may think there would be nothing innovative about an established rainforest, but nothing could be further from the truth," Mrs. Early said. "Our little forest patch is struggling right now; we need some innovative thinking to keep it healthy!"

A partnership with the Singapore Botanic Gardens will help in this endeavor. Already, the prestigious organization has provided students with lessons in biodiversity, kindly donated critically endangered species of plants, and trained students on how to take care of them.

"Our SAS rainforest is one of a kind on an international school campus! It provides hands-on experiential learning right in our own backyard," said Ms. Baildon. "High school, middle school classes, and our fourth grade class has been utilizing our little forest, and it is hoped that in the near future classes across all grade levels will be frequent explorers and researchers into the forest. The possible cross-grade-level connections and experiences are endless!"

Learn more about the 2014 SAS Comprehensive Rainforest and Nursery Proposal here!