Issue Date: November 21, 2011
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.
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