He Majored in Biomedical Sciences But Found Meaning in Teaching Biology

In this personality series, meet some of the most outstanding individuals who not only believe in creating change, but run alongside us to make our planet a better place to live in.

For biology teacher Jacob Tan from Commonwealth Secondary School, there is no greater joy than to see his students in awe and wonder of the intricacy of life (and nature). “When I teach, I want my students to go beyond understanding the biology concepts!”

“If I am not interested, I know my students will feel it. That’s when I
started to do more research and become more knowledgeable bit by bit.”

Jacob started teaching eight years ago at Commonwealth Secondary School.
The perfect school day, in Jacob’s books, is one where seizing a teachable moment is possible by bringing an insect or animal to class, or bringing his students out of the classroom to witness the mass blooming of the trumpet flowers.

“And if I am able to make a link to the segment of the biology textbook, I will feel even more accomplished because my students can then experience how knowledge is applied to understand the natural world.”

Like many teachers in Singapore, Jacob arrives in school at 6.45am to get ready for the day by printing and preparing lesson materials. He will then go for his first lesson at 8am, and in the late morning, he puts on his high boots to do his daily rounds around the school’s eco-habitats. He looks out for interesting flora and fauna and posts it on Instagram at #cwssbiodiversity.

Occasionally though, he responds to requests from students or staff to help injured or trapped animals in the school.

Rescuing wild animals in school

Just a month ago, Jacob was alerted when a group of students and their teacher came to look for him in the staff room at 8.20am on Oct 16. They were having their lesson at the computer lab when they heard a loud
bang. It was the stunningly beautiful yet endangered Jambu Fruit Dove — lying motionlessly — dead.

The colourful fruit dove is native to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia.
©Jacob Tan

“This is the fourth recorded case of bird collision with glass windows in our school since April 2017. Birds crash into windows and glass panels because they see reflections of vegetation or see through the glass to vegetation on the other side.”

Bird collisions in Singapore have been more common recently. In fact, a new study has shown that a third of resident birds found dead (362 bird carcasses were picked up between November 2013 and last October
alone) were caused by building collisions, as reported by The Straits Times.

An adult male Jambu Fruit Dove (above) was found dead outside the computer
lab. Drops of blood were reportedly seen around its bill.
©Jacob Tan

The school contacted David Tan, a researcher from the Evolutionary Biology Laboratory at the National University of Singapore (NUS) who studies bird collisions in Singapore. His research contributes to data-driven proposals that help local authorities introduce mitigation measures for buildings situated in bird collision hotspots. Three other collisions which happened last year at different wetlands in the school were the Spotted Dove and female Pink-necked Green Pigeon (two months ago, a juvenile species was found too).

“When it happened, we did think about blocking out the reflection, but the urgency wasn’t there. It wasn’t until the attractive Jambu Fruit Dove, coupled with the fact that it’s such a rare species, that brings about more awareness. We took action immediately.”

Non-reflective stickers were pasted (as shown on the right) two weeks after the Jambu Dove incident occurred.

The new feature reportedly mitigates the risk of future bird collisions without compromising on natural light into the room.

“Another successful rescue story was when a monitor lizard was stuck in a trap meant for pests. A colleague informed me and I immediately put on my gloves and texted Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) for advice. They told me to put a towel over head and eyes to calm it — and use cooking oil to spray onto the body to remove the glue from the trap. It survived and went off its way.”

Building a green school culture

Commonwealth Secondary School was presented with the internationally
recognised Eco-School International Green Flag at the WWF Eco-Schools
Award Ceremony 2018 on Nov 9.

An award given to schools with an emphasis on continuous school improvement and culture of environmental awareness, the school has successfully defended the status for two years.

To top it off, it has won the WWF Eco-Schools Excellence Award – Campaigns (Plastic), too.

Part of the school’s herculean efforts in reducing single-use plastic is the “Reduce Plastic Waste Project” where students and teachers share simple actions (like using a reusable container) by putting up signages around the school.

“As a recipient of WWF Eco-Schools Green Flag Award, we can be a shining example for other schools to follow us on using less plastic. Last year, my ex-student came back to visit and told me about his burden for the reduction of plastic waste and hoped I can initiate something in the school. Now, I can see how the efforts borne fruits. Colleagues are now more conscious of their contribution to plastic waste, students remind each other to skip the straw, and our canteen vendors have switched to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.”

Encounter with a Eurasian Tree Sparrow

When asked about the best part of teaching, Jacob shared that one of it is helping students develop a greater respect for all living things.

And it does come to pass, at least for a student.

“One day, I was on my way to leave the school and was stopped by a student who witnessed a bird that fell from the ceiling after being hit by the fan. I told her that the bird was most likely going to die but she still wanted me to go with her to the site, hoping that I may do something to revive the bird.

She said, “Mr. Tan, surely you can think of a way to save this bird. Do CPR or something!!”.

“I realised that she is filled with compassion for this small Eurasian Tree Sparrow and that I have initially failed to address her concern and
tap on her emotions for wildlife. Unfortunately, the bird stopped breathing and we briefly said a prayer before digging a hole to bury it.”

Find out more about the WWF Eco-Schools Programme here

Read more about the 10 threatened species in Singapore, our Ivory Lane campaign, and saving the great whales

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