Explore world of science with your child – The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – Many Singaporeans have fond childhood memories of sketching plants at the Botanic Gardens or identifying hoofed animals at the zoo while daydreaming about becoming the next Young Botanist or Young Zoologist. 
And children today still sketch plants and identify animals for Young Scientist Badges, an initiative under which young hopefuls complete tasks to earn points and, eventually, their badges. 
In its 40th year, it is Science Centre Singapore’s (SCS) longest-running programme.
To mark the anniversary, it has added another three badges to its collection of 22. 
More than one million Young Scientist Badges have been awarded since 1982. The three most popular are Young Entomologist, Young Botanist and Young Zoologist. 
Interest in earning the badges surged after the programme was digitised (youngscientist.sscglobal.com.sg) in 2020. 
A spokesman for SCS said there were more than 170,000 enrolments from 2020 until now. Previously, about 10,000 signed up every year.
Since going online, parents have been signing up their children, with nearly 40 per cent of enrolments since 2020 coming from individuals, said SCS. Previously, almost all sign-ups were done through schools. 
The activities are also designed to involve parents, who can approve up to six stars worth of tasks for each badge for their children. 
The kids need to complete 15 stars worth of activities to earn one badge. 
In the past, the endorsement of activities was done entirely by school teachers and educators from the Science Centre. 
Experts said parents of young children play an important role in their journey of discovering science and the world around them.
Ms Georgette Tan, president of United Women Singapore (UWS), said parents are in a good position to recognise early ability in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) learning by observing their children at home.
They should watch how the young ones play and tinker, and notice what draws their attention.  
Allow them to make mistakes, she added, and reassure them when they fail so that they learn resilience. 
Depending on the child’s inclination, he or she could begin on the Young Scientist Badges activities as early as in pre-school, said SCS chief executive Lim Tit Meng, adding that the youngest to ever take part in the programme was four years old. 
Young Botanist and Young Zoologist badges are kids’ favourites, noted Associate Professor Lim, who is also from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) department of biological sciences. 
“These involve plants and animals – things that children will come across. So it’s good to start with the natural sciences.”
Dr Wilson Wong, deputy director of Jurong Lake Gardens (operations) at the National Parks Board (NParks), said parents can point their children to resources online and offline.
Read up on your children’s interests and plan activities that are parent-guided initially, before letting them take on projects on their own, he suggested. 
“For example, for children who are interested in gardening or plants, parents could join them in the activity and dedicate a space in their home to growing plants, or even venture into outdoor gardening,” he said. 
“For those interested in biodiversity and nature, you could take along a camera to our parks, gardens or nature reserves and take photographs of nature with your children. The green spaces in our City in Nature are home to rich biodiversity such as birds, butterflies and dragonflies, and several native tree species. 
“If your child is interested in food science, the laboratory is in fact in your own kitchen,” he added. 
Show interest in your children’s inclinations, he said, as it will help to boost their confidence and nurture their curiosity. 
In the early 1990s, when his two children were young, Prof Lim grouped with four other families to set up play dates for the kids, taking turns to organise activities not limited to science.
The children were exposed to all sorts of science experiments, games and storytelling two to four times a month for about a decade, from pre-school to secondary school.
The parents would also organise outings for the children to learn how to read maps, during which they visited different parts of Singapore. 
“We even invited engineers, computer scientists and vets to come over and talk about their work,” said Prof Lim, whose daughter is now 28 and son 31.
She studied in NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, and is a lawyer. She found her science foundation very helpful in her law cases that interfaced with biomedical science. His son has two degrees, in economics and systems engineering.
A few years ago, Mr Edmond Looi and his family signed up as volunteers for NParks’ community science initiatives, where members of the public learn how to identify different species and count the number of birds and dragonflies in parks.
“I think that sparked my daughter’s interest in science, nature and animals,” he said.
He went on to support his daughter Shavonne in her journey of collecting the Young Scientist Badges when she was a Primary 2 pupil.
They went together to check out eco-friendly features such as LED lights and green walls at malls. They also visited an electronic store and read labels on household appliances to find out which were the most energy-efficient.
These activities helped Shavonne earn the Young Sustainability Champion badge, her first.
Mr Looi, 48, who works in sales in cloud services, also took her to parks where they observed insects, helping her earn the Young Entomologist badge.
“It brought back some of my own childhood memories, going after the badges in primary school,” he added.
Said Shavonne, who is now in Primary 4 and has earned 15 badges: “I like doing the activities with my father. It’s fun when we can discuss and learn more about science together.”
There are many resources and places in Singapore for families with young children, said Dr Wong, who is also adjunct assistant professor of the department of food science and technology at NUS.  
“Turn these into weekend outings – visit libraries, the Science Centre, the Natural History Museum or nature reserves and parks,” he added. 
As a primary school pupil, Dr Wong often followed his hawker parents to the market on weekends, and that was what made him curious about edible plants. 
“I was interested to see how vegetables grew,” he said, adding that he went on to earn a Young Botanist badge before completing all 12 badges available during his primary school years.  
The Young Scientist Badges are a natural platform for bonding, as it requires parents to be involved in the children’s process of completing the tasks, Prof Lim said. 
Let the children carry out activities by themselves first. If they need help, parents can assist by asking prompting questions or in the process of gathering materials or making observations. 
They can also assist in conducting experiments or more challenging tasks. 
Dr Lee Song Choon, director of KidsStop and events and engagement at SCS, said the badges can open up conversations between parents and children.
“There’s no stress, and the badge activities go beyond school work or exam grades,” he added, noting that parents can talk to their kids about values such as determination, creativity and open-mindedness, in completing the tasks. 
As children get older, parents can use the badges to talk to them about possible careers in science and related fields, and share insights into how the industries have evolved. 
The programme has worked with organisations and agencies such as the Temasek Foundation and Singapore Land Authority to design badges for the newest fields in science and technology, which may also be interdisciplinary in nature. 
The Young Sustainability Champion badge was launched in 2020 and the Young Geospatial Scientist badge in 2021.
Mr Looi said: “I like that the badges offer more than what schools teach. More importantly, Shavonne is also learning about different job possibilities out there.”
Be aware of how certain biases – conscious or not – can affect parenting practices, said UWS’ Ms Tan. 
“These practices play an integral part in bridging the confidence gap that girls are facing today, especially when venturing into Stem education or careers,” she added. 
“By socialising boys and girls to certain activities and presumed interests, we are putting both our boys and girls at a disadvantage and limiting their potential achievements in areas that are non-traditional for their genders.”
Mr Looi said gender has never crossed his mind in how he encourages his daughter to explore her interests.
“We let her do what she likes, choose which badges she wanted to pursue, and we encourage her to read widely, from fiction books to biographies to science magazines for children.”
The SCS offers various programmes for young children to explore science, some of which are held during the school holidays.
Dr Lee said children aged three to eight can join the KidsStop Academy Programme, which develops inquiry and investigative skills through simple science experiments.
The programme, which started in 2015, now has close to 400 active members. Toddlers can experiment with kitchen ingredients to learn about the science of food, explore the world of fruit and flowers, or learn about the wind.
Dr Lim Kim Yong, scientific manager at NUS’ science faculty, said parents can use simple household materials to try out experiments with their children.
Some ideas and video demonstrations from the faculty’s Young Educators in Science members and alumni can be found at str.sg/wC2v or str.sg/wC6k.
In partnership with HSBC bank, NUS’ Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum has launched free public workshops to introduce children aged seven and above to climate change and its impact on biodiversity.
Through the Climate Change and Biodiversity Programme, children will learn about ocean acidification, deforestation and carbon storage through a gallery tour and hands-on activities. They will play the “HSBC Green Champion Card Game”, developed and designed by the museum.
The first run was held in November and there will be five more sessions from January to April 2023.
Go to youngscientist.sscglobal.com.sg for more information on the Young Scientist Badges programme.
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