Curiosity’s Power | November 21, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 47 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 47 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: November 21, 2011

Curiosity’s Power

Department: Editor's Page, Education
Keywords: education, STEM education, Philippines, science culture
[+]Enlarge
Licuanan (left) and Biyo discussed Philippine culture and science at an education forum in New York City.
Credit: Maureen Rouhi
Patricia Licuanan (left) and Josette Biyo discussed Philippine culture and science at education forum in New York City on Nov. 7
 
Licuanan (left) and Biyo discussed Philippine culture and science at an education forum in New York City.
Credit: Maureen Rouhi

Curiosity unsettled a major corporation in the Philippines. That’s one of many inspiring stories I heard at a forum organized by the Philippine Development Foundation and held on Nov. 7 at the Asia Society Museum in New York City. I also heard that Philippine society tends to discourage curiosity, and therein lies a hurdle in the country’s aspiration to nurture scientifically minded citizens.

The story of how a 12-year-old boy’s curiosity unnerved SM Department Store, the largest retail chain in the Philippines, came from Josette Biyo. She is the executive director of the Philippine Science High School System, of which I am a proud alumna. According to Biyo, this boy wondered to his mother about the veracity of the “biodegradable” label on SM’s plastic bags: “Mom, is this true? Because if not, I will sue SM.”

A first-year student at one of PSHSS’s 11 regional campuses, the boy devised an experiment to gather evidence of biodegradability, Biyo recounted. He exposed the plastic bags to various environmental conditions—in his backyard, in a ditch, in seawater—and took pictures before exposure and at various times after. After four months, he found signs of degradation and concluded that the bags are degradable. But Biyo said, the boy could not ascertain the “bio” part of the label, because he did not yet have the skills to establish that the degradation is due to biological activity.

As it happens, the boy is Biyo’s son. One could say that Biyo’s genes for scientific aptitude carried over well: Biyo is a Ph.D. biologist by training and has devoted her professional career to teaching high school science. Her teaching innovations were recognized in 2002 with an Excellence in Teaching Award from the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. Because of that achievement, Massachusetts Institute of Technology honored her by naming a heavenly object after her, Asteroid 13241 Biyo.

Sometime after the experiment, Biyo recalled, SM executives invited her to a corporate forum on the basis of her celebrity as an asteroid’s namesake. When she mentioned the experiment with plastic bags, Biyo said, the executives “were holding their breath,” heaving a collective sigh of relief only when she revealed the results. “They told me that they were scared,” Biyo said, “because they didn’t realize that 12-year-old children” could be investigating their claims scientifically. Someone quipped, Biyo said, that SM was lucky the samples came from batches that were in fact degradable, because the retail chain itself was not confident of its claim. As a result of the scrutiny, SM has shifted to nonplastic reusable bags, Biyo claimed. “A simple experiment became a national initiative,” she said.

As head of a national high school system designed to prepare students for careers in science and technology, Biyo plays a critical role in nurturing the Philippines’ future scientists and innovators. Like many countries, the Philippines believes that science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are key to economic progress.

Success depends on many factors, including the sociocultural context. Patricia B. Licuanan, a social psychologist by training and the chair of the Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education, noted that for science to flourish requires certain qualities of people: curiosity, the capacity to observe our surroundings, love of learning, creativity, rigor, discipline, critical thinking, open-mindedness, and the ability to question authority.

Certain aspects of the Philippines’ socio­cultural environment discourage those qualities, Licuanan offered. For example, curious, inquisitive children are often labeled “makulit,” meaning overly persistent to the point of being pesky. She also noted a study finding that most Filipino teachers want students to be “masunurin,” that is, obedient and well behaved. Philippine culture also emphasizes authority and credentials: “We tend to accept the opinions of experts,” she said, “and children get the message that they cannot find answers for themselves.”

Cultural change takes time. The organizers hope that Filipinos overseas who have succeeded in environments that cultivate these qualities can help accelerate the pace back home. How best to do so is a question I grapple with. I welcome your suggestions.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Comments
Felix A. Buot (November 21, 2011 3:23 PM)
Thanks for bringing this issue Maureen. It is also worth mentioning that each of us may have quite different views of the world around us, and hence questioning accepted knowledge and 'going another way' is supposed to be quite natural.

Curiosity and imagination has led many so-called 'drop-outs' and 'bad students' to revolutionize S&T and the way society live.
Maureen Rouhi (November 23, 2011 11:17 AM)
It's going to take a lot to change how people think, Felix. Even those of us who fervently want to stimulate curiosity and imagination can be stymied by years and years of acculturation.
Vicky Garchitorena (November 22, 2011 8:46 PM)
thanks, Maureen, for this wonderful report on the PhilDEv Forum. your moderating skill helped bring out some great discussion on important issues on the Philipppine education system. We hope you remain engaged in the efforts to look for strategic solutions to these problems.
Maureen Rouhi (November 23, 2011 11:18 AM)
It was a privilege to participate in the forum, Vicky. I was truly inspired to see so many accomplished Filipinos working earnestly to raise the level of science and innovation in the Philippines.
Flor Lacanilao (November 22, 2011 10:37 PM)

Flor Lacanilao 23 Nov 2011

This is yet another story that tells exceptional curiousity of some Filipino children. A few have even been among top performers in international science and math competetions. The country's basic education and educational systems, however, have continued to lag behind an increasing number of neighbor countries. The problem starts in higher education, which has overlooked the following:

1. The Importance of using internationally acepted criteria for selection, performance, and funding.

2. Fred Grinnell says in his book, Everyday Practice of Science, "The easiest way to assess if one has made any major contributions to one's field is with the ISI data base called Web of Knowledge ." You can get the same information (published papers and citations), but not quite as complete, from Google Scholar, he added.

3. "It is doubtful that great progress can be made at the primary and secondary levels until a higher standard of science learning is set at the post-secondary level (Carl Wieman, Nobel laureate in physics").



Maureen Rouhi (November 23, 2011 2:36 PM)
It is unfortunate that higher education in the Philippines has not progressed as much as in neighboring Asian countries. When I was an undergrad, the University of Philippines at Los Banos felt like an international campus, with students from many Asian countries as far as India and Pakistan. UPLB was at the forefront of agricultural development and food technology. As an aside, when I visited Thailand for the first time last September, I marveled at the high quality of products--snacks and personal care item--incorporating local flavors and natural products. "They learned it all from the Philippines," my Bangkok-based friend,also a UPLB alumna, commented.
Cesar Umali (December 1, 2011 5:22 AM)
Part of the reasons why 'higher education in the Philippines has not progressed as much as in neighboring Asian countries' is that our brilliant graduates have mostly gone elsewhere in more advanced countries of the world to work there and serve foreign interests. For them, it is more glamorous to be in the States teaching in their state universities and/or working for multinational companies.These graduates, however, cannot be blamed for this. UPLB and other local state colleges and universities have been highly politicized such that opportunities for the highly qualified are often lost when a more influential even if less qualified candidate comes in.
Maureen Rouhi (December 3, 2011 6:35 PM)
I hope that the Philippine government can supply the environment for scientists to thrive and stay. Look at China, for example. Many of its scientists who have established themselves in the West are returning.
Flor Lacanilao (November 23, 2011 1:16 AM)
Flor Lacanilao (23 Nov 2011)

The story tells the exceptional curiosity in science of some Filipino children. A few have even been among top performers in international science and math competitions. The country's basic education and educational systems, however, have continued to lag behind an increasing number of neighbor countries, The basic problem lies in the higher education, which has overlooked the following:

1. The Importance of using internationally acepted criteria for selection, performance, and funding.

2. Fred Grinnell says in his book, Everyday Practice of Science, "The easiest way to assess if one has made any major contributions to one's field is with the ISI data base called Web of Knowledge ." You can get the same information (published papers and citations), but not quite as complete, from Google Scholar, he added.

3. "It is doubtful that great progress can be made at the primary and secondary levels until a higher standard of science learning is set at the post-secondary level (Carl Wieman, Nobel laureate in physics").

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment