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Hearts in a Lab: Volunteer Dr. Poh Tan on Radical Science Education

Dr. Poh Tan volunteers in Science World's Community Scientists program. Read her story about how a single moment in a grade 7 science class changed her life and put her on a path to re-imagining science education for a better world.

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A Teacher’s Power

When Poh Tan was in grade 7, her science teacher Mr. Kashima taught her a lesson that changed her life.

At twelve-years-old and newly immigrated to Canada, Poh was afraid to present an engineering project to her classmates. She was embarrassed that she had made mistakes; it wasn’t perfect. She was insecure about public speaking.

When she did it anyway, her teacher Mr. Kashima told her he was proud. He admitted that he, too, got nervous speaking in front of people. He said that being nervous was okay. And that, only when we communicate our mistakes--and, specifically, the intent behind our mistakes--can we effect change.

In the almost thirty years since, Poh has not stopped trying.

She’s founded two education-based businesses, is raising two children with her husband and, come July 2020, will hold two PhDs.

All of her work follows the example of Mr. Kashima: “He taught from the heart. More importantly, he taught with the heart.”

Her second PhD thesis (she'll defend in July 2020) argues for a radical re-conceptualizing of both science education and scientific literacy--one that centres emotion.

This idea makes some scientists uncomfortable. And Poh believes it could change the world.

A Teacher’s Mission

Poh volunteers for Community Scientists at Science World because she wants to get her message out. She travels to BC schools and to Science World to present her research to young people.

Community Scientists, coordinated by Dr. Friderike Moon (Science World's Manager of STEAM Mentor Initiatives), is delivered in every region of BC. In 2019 alone, supported by partners and 250 volunteers, the program reached 55,000 students and teachers with in-school presentations.

Dr. Moon speaks about the impacts of Community Scientists: "Students learn that, no matter where they live in the province, they can pursue a career in a STEAM profession, and they can find work in their community."

"The science experts and professionals who volunteer come from all over the world. As they share their knowledge and experience, they also become role models for young students, and prove that anyone can become a scientist or engineer."

Poh’s own experience volunteering for Science World echoes this sentiment. “I always wear my lab coat when I'm presenting! I’m a woman. I’m Asian. So, no, I don’t look like Einstein,” she laughs.

Poh recalls a presentation in North Vancouver to grade ones where a student raised her hand and expressed shock that Poh was both a scientist and a “girl.”

“I said, ‘Yes! I am a girl. And so are you. And you know what? Girls can be anything they want to be. Including scientists.’”

A Teacher’s Legacy

Poh hopes her PhD thesis will help convince her scientific colleagues that, just as much as facts and figures, emotional connections belong in the laboratory.

For over a year, Poh has worked with teacher Clarah Menezes and her grade 4-5 students in a coastal town in Novo Hamburgo, southern Brazil. When she met these kids, challenges surrounding their economic, health, and social conditions made it difficult for them to prioritize school and, in particular, science.

But when Clarah began working within Poh’s framework—science education that centres a relational and emotional connection with all subjects—the outcomes of her students transformed.

Since asking themselves, “Why are we learning this? And how can it help our fellow classmates?”, they’ve built a map in Braille for the several students with vision challenges.

They’ve developed a computer app that teaches sign language to help communication between deaf students and able listeners.

And, after learning about bacteria and viruses in the classroom, they researched how to make effective disinfectants and volunteered to clean bathrooms.  

Clarah says the most important difference is in how they feel now: that they can make a difference in the world despite their socioeconomic status. 

And that’s the whole point, Poh says. To empower kids to know they can change the world.

“These kids we’re teaching—in Brazil, at Science World, the schools I visit in BC—they will eventually become citizens making important decisions that affect us all.

“To have the ability to critically examine each decision you’re about to make, especially from an emotional place, is so important. It will help us treat the world and each other in a better way. And that’s what’s important. That’s all that matters. That is what I truly feel.”

Acknowledgements

Poh would like express her gratitude to Science World for giving her the opportunity to bring science into classrooms across BC; Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Education for their continual support of her research endeavours; Unisinos University and Clarah Menezes for collaborating to deepen her understanding of her teaching practice and bring change to her students; Mitacs Canada for providing funds that allowed for an international collaboration; and her family for being a continuous pillar of support through both PhD journeys. Visit Poh's website to learn more about all she does.


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