Educator and author Aurelia Tan has worked with students for over 20 years, and she says teaching was a passion she “discovered along the way, serendipitously.” We spoke to her about making science come alive for local schoolchildren, and what parents can do on the home front to support their fledgling learners.
Tell us about your teaching journey.
Becoming a teacher was not my initial choice of a career. In fact, as a child I had my eyes set on medical school and carried that aspiration in my heart for a long time. However, teaching has been a passion that I have discovered along the way, serendipitously in fact, and I am grateful for the lives I have been given to impact. To this day, I continue to teach and give time to children for this very reason.
I have taught students from Primary 2 to Primary 6, and for over 20 years in various capacities—as a Ministry of Education teacher, at the Chinese Development Assistance Council, and at various tuition centres. I started specializing in maths and science in the last decade or so.
As a science educator, do you find that local students have a curiosity for the world around them?
As teachers, we come across a whole range of students. We have the inquisitive ones who are curious and like to ask questions. They are conceptually strong and have an affinity for the subject and need to be challenged. We also meet students who are struggling and weak academically. These students must be taught in a different way to ignite their interest in the subject and give them “handles” to succeed.
How do you help your students to fall in love with science?
My science classes are lively and full of engagement. I throw up questions and ideas for discussions. My students love exchanging ideas; we brainstorm and build things together. My approach is very hands on as a teacher and I conduct experiments almost every other lesson. More importantly, I build relationships. My students and I have a close bond, and I bring them out at least once in a year and we go out as a group. They can also come and talk to me individually, and many of them see me as a friend they can relate to.
You’ve published a graphic novel series, as well as a book of doodles, to help children master science concepts. How did you start using art as a learning aid?
I discovered this approach by chance; inspiration struck one day when one of my students showed me how he represented science concepts in his mind through drawings. I realised this is how some children learn best—with information presented in a bite-sized yet visually appealing way. This led me to conceive the JJ’s Science Adventure series and subsequently Science Doodles, which have been popular with children because the information is presented in a fun and digestible way.
How would you reach out to students who are not interested in science?
Engaging students via hands-on experiments is key, so that they can see the relevance of science to real-life situations. Over time, they will learn to like the subject and become more intrinsically motivated, which is essential to learning. I once had a Primary 6 student who had dyslexia and was in the 20-mark range, and my approach was to continually conduct experiments and engage her interest before she gradually became receptive to working on her science papers. As teachers, we need to come down to the level of students and help them gain confidence one step at a time.
Do you find that certain topics in the local science syllabus are trickier for students?
Every child likes different topics really, as every child is unique. But normally, students do not have difficulty with the “Lower Block” topics taught in Primary 3 and 4. Later on, some children might find the topic of Electricity difficult as it is more abstract. Making the abstract concrete usually helps. For example, I build circuits with children using circuit breakers and testers. This helps them envision how electricity flows and makes it easier to grasp the concepts.
In your experience, what factors have led students to dislike science as a subject and perform badly?
It’s hard to pinpoint a cause or contributing factors, but most of these children are weak across other subjects as well, and struggle to keep pace in school.
What materials or additional tools would you recommend to parents who are trying to help their kids with science?
Making science come alive in the home will help children see the relevance of science in daily life. For example, daily items such as shoes can be learning tools—asking when we need to change a pair of shoes can lead to a discussion on friction. There are also videos on YouTube such as “Wild Kratts,” a cartoon that educates children about animals and how they adapt to their environment. Other resources that parents can use include National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.
What advice would you give to parents of struggling science students?
It depends on the student’s mark range. Usually I would tell parents who have children in Primary 4 not to worry, as the jump to Primary 5 is steep and children need some time and assurance during this transitional stage. Weak students who score between 20 and 40 marks need to work on foundational concepts, which are taught from Primary 3 to Primary 5. My advice for them would be to focus on the multiple-choice questions, rather than the open-ended questions, and hone their technique for the multiple-choice questions till they can achieve a near perfect score.
Any exam tips for primary school students?
They should know what is in their syllabus, and be aware of the key concepts for every topic. At Primary 3 and 4, they should slowly be taught how to answer science questions. At Primary 5, the dip in grades can be up to 30 marks. Paper 2 (with open-ended questions) is more analytical and requires thinking skills, so many students can’t handle that. They are also at a loss as to how to apply science concepts to the questions. To address that challenge, they need to understand certain cues: “State,” “Describe,” “Explain,” and “Give a reason” all require a different approach to answering a question. For example, “Explain” means to state an observation followed by the science concept to explain the observation. Students need to be familiar with these answering techniques to score well in the exams.