Our recent outreach project was undertaken at Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) Sungai Mas in September/October. This is a small rural primary school and it caters for Orang Asli children. The trip was made possible by the funding received through the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP).
Ten undergraduate students and two staff from QUT participated in this project. The students were from the following disciplines: Education (5), IT (1) and Science (4). The project was managed by Graeme Baguley (Manager, International Student Services). Associate Professor Jennifer Firn (Faculty of Science and Engineering) and I were responsible for the students and their activities in our respective areas. We teamed up with Dr Siti Isa and Dr Evelyn Lin and 31 of their students from the Universiti Putra Malaysia(UPM). Like last year, we had excellent support from Dato’ Sri Haji Mohd Sharkar Shahbudin (Chairman, Pahang State Tourism) and Dato’ Ahmad Farid Abdul Jalal (Director, Pahang State Museum Authority). We were also very appreciative of the support of other staff members from UPM. For all of us, the dinner with Her Royal Highness Crown Princess of Pahang, Tunku Hajjah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah was a special and significant moment. This dinner was jointly hosted by Pahang State Tourism and the Pahang State Museum Authority at the Pahang Art Museum in Kuantan.
The Australian students had to complete an assessment task as part of this project. The education students had to design and develop a unit plan that showcased the use of ICT in this Malaysian Primary School. Coding and computational thinking were at the core of these activities. In addition, the activities also had to promote English language development. The delivery of the activities had a trans-disciplinary and trans-national focus. The education students had to communicate and collaborate with other students from QUT and UPM and teachers from the primary school to deliver activities. None of these students had a background in education.
The Australian team arrived in Malaysia on different days and times. This was due to the fact that all participants had to make their own bookings for their flights. This was a condition of the NCP grant. There are no direct flights between Brisbane and Kuala Lumpur – this added another layer of complication. For this reason, we all had to fly out from the Gold Coast. All overnight flights arrived in Malaysia at about 4.30am. Despite our different and inconvenient arrival times, our counterparts at UPM were very accommodating – as always. The hospitality and the friendliness of our colleagues in Malaysia and their students cannot be expressed in a few words. They were just amazing!!
For all of us, our trip to Kuantan started on Sunday morning. The weather was relatively pleasant – very different from our previous visit. It was somewhat cooler. This time haze and smoke was not an issue. Last year, the burning of natural forests in Indonesia was causing havoc to people in Malaysia and in other countries. Schools had to close due to pollution. En route to, Kuantan we stopped at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary. This is an interesting place to visit and see the elephants perform to a captive audience. This park seems to be very popular and attracts both the locals and tourists. The audience also gets a chance to bathe the elephants. The body language of these magnificent giants tends to suggest that they enjoy the experience. For most of our students, it was the first time that they got a chance to not only see elephants but also get to give them a bath at such a close distance.
SK Sungai Mas was about 30 minutes from our hotel. However, our coach could not get us to the school. There is a feeder road that connects the school and local community to the main road. While the condition of this road was relatively good, it was only designed for light traffic.It was too narrow for a bus to go through. Walking was possible but not feasible due to time constraints. There was a UPM mini bus that transported some of us to the school. So we had to find alternative transport locally. Teachers at the school also transported us to and from the main road to the school from time to time.
SK Sungai Mas was a neat and tidy school. It was colourful. Walls throughout the school were peppered with text and images. Most were designed to capture students attention in the hope that it would deliver some positive messages that would add value to their learning. The physical environment spoke volumes about the passion that the staff, students and the community had about the school. These characteristics made the school very welcoming. To me, the school looked very inviting and was an ideal environment for teaching and learning. The staff and students embraced us very warmly into their school. On day 1, we were welcomed by Zulfadzli Ismail, the Assistant Head-Teacher. We were shown to our classrooms.
Given the small size of each class, combining Grades 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6 was relatively easy. So we had three groups to work with as planned. Monday was the day for observations for our students. However, the teachers at the school expected our students to start teaching. Instead of whingeing and whining our students from QUT and UPM sprung into action. They all did a brilliant job and it was also a major confidence booster. They knew that with some modifications they could implement what they had planned.
Jessica Martin and Ashley Mitchell led the Grade 1 and 2 team. On some days children from the preschool also joined their group. Their activity focused predominantly on Bee-bots. These robots are very popular with younger children in Australia and elsewhere. Mary Cosmo and Madeline Seivers led the Grade 3 and 4 team. They used Edison robots for some of the activities but later modified their plan which enabled their students to create multimedia presentations. Joram Villanueva and Mitchell Neill led the Grade 5 and 6 team. Their focus was on teaching coding and computational thinking using Scratch. I was quite amazed when I found out that Malaysia and already introduced Scratch programming in the curriculum for children in Grade 6. However, it appeared that children were learning about this application for the first time!
All teams came across issues and challenges from time to time. But it was very pleasing to see that the team leaders were able to solve the problem through communication, collaboration and application of their knowledge and understanding of the task at hand. We often talk about 21st-century skills and the 4C’s – critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and communication skills. For me, I could see that our students were able to demonstrate the 4C’s by solving curriculum problems that were highly relevant in this unseen and unique context. This is the type of teachers we want to see in all oschoolsols.
Our success was largely dependent upon the support provided by the Head Teacher – Humdan Bin Ahmad, his staff and the school community. The school appeared to have an open door policy with the local community. Parents always seem to have been welcomed with open arms. In fact there was a small hut next to the school gate for the members of the community. Perhaps one of my highlights was seeing the parents come of school on the last day and participate with their children in their classrooms. With some certainity I can say that they were seeing robots and programming for the first time.
One afternoon our group was invited to visit the local village and sample the life of the orang asli people. We tasted some native fruits, saw how sap was drawn from rubber trees, and got a look into their homes to get some appreciation of their life styles.
The support provided by the Pahang Government, Pahang Tourism and the Pahang State Museum Authority (last year and this year) added another dimension to our Malaysian experience. On this trip, Sri Haji Mohd Sharkar Shahbudin (Chairman, Pahang State Tourism) and Dato’ Ahmad Farid Abdul Jalal (Director, Pahang State Museum Authority) hosted two dinners and a lunch for our students. The dinner at the Pahang Art Museum in Kuantan with Her Royal Highness Crown Princess of Pahang as the guest of honor with other VIPs represented a once in a lifetime opportunity for us all. It may remain in our memories forever. I felt quite honoured to have addressed the princess on behalf of our two universites and then joined her for dinner at her table. This evening gave us an opportunity to highlight the work we were doing with the orang asli children. In her speech and in the conversations that I had with her, it was obvious that Her Royal Highness was a very compassionate human being. I was truly impressed by the work the princess and the prince were doing for the underprevildged in low socio-economic communities.
So what is the take home message? I have been involved in outreach projects for the past few years. Such experiences (thanks to all the parties involved) create unseen opportunities for us to view the world and its people through a different pair lens. How we paint the picture of the world depends on how we see it. However, our picture will be based on our experiences and not be based on what someone has tells us. There are far too many people – who think “small” and talk “big”. The world is the best classroom you can have – so experience it and form your own views!