7 January 2015: Yale-NUS students explored the outdoors in Pulau Langkawi

Written by Elena Owyong l Images as credited

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Image by Daniel Gordon

Hiking through the jungles of Pulau Langkawi at night, Maria Ivanenko (Class of 2017) learnt how to spot creatures in the dark.

“Eyeshine is a good way to locate animals,” said Maria, passing on the tip she learnt from her Foundations of Science (FoS) field trip to Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.

“I thought the shine was simply the reflection of the flashlight on the water droplets but under closer observation, the shine was actually from the eyes of many small spiders staring back at us,” shared Maria. Eyeshine is an effect where animals’ eyes appear to glow when light is shone on their eyes. This effect also occurs in certain species of spiders.

The night hike was one of several scientific-based activities the FoS students experienced during their two-day field trip to Pulau Langkawi. Half the class participated in the October field trip while the rest went earlier in September.

The field trips were designed to provide a common experience for students to immerse themselves in a natural laboratory of forests, beaches and mountains, shared Professor Bryan E Penprase, one of the faculty members who planned the trip.

“Our entire class became naturalists for a weekend and combined their studies of biology, ecology, geology, astronomy and math in an integrated way. This is interdisciplinary and experiential education at its best!” said Professor Penprase, an astronomer.

Professor Penprase added that Langkawi was chosen because it was the headquarters of the Malaysian national observatory. Moreover, Langkawi offered a breathtaking view of the Milky Way due to its unpolluted dark skies.

Lessons Learnt

For some students, the trip to Langkawi gave them surprising insights into life, in addition to acquiring valuable scientific knowledge.

“My most memorable experience was getting to hold a toad. I could sense its fear or comfort depending on the weight it was putting on each leg,” said Karen Ho (Class of 2017).

“At that moment, I remembered that we aren’t very different from these other living things after all,” she added.

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Karen Ho (Class of 2017) holding a frog during the field trip. Image by Karen Ho.

For Maria, the trip reinforced the interdisciplinary nature of science.

“The Langkawi trip helped me learn about different types of science, how to conduct research in the field, and also showed me the interconnectedness of the sciences,” she said.

Preparing for the unexpected

FoS course co-ordinator Professor Brian G McAdoo and his team went through several obstacles while planning for the trip.

“When traveling to a place that we are not intimately familiar with, planning for contingencies is a challenge,” explained Professor McAdoo.

“What if it is cloudy at the observatory? What if it is too stormy to take the boats into the mangrove? What if, for whatever reason, we go on a forest hike to observe nocturnal fauna and we don’t find any?” said Professor McAdoo, recounting the scenarios they tried to plan for.

Thankfully, none of the scenarios actually occurred. Both students and faculty members fully immersed themselves in the various activities during the field trip.

In fact, some FoS faculty members went on a night hike in the jungle looking for nocturnal amphibians and reptiles, added Professor McAdoo, “Just for fun!”

Upon being surveyed, most of the students felt that the trip was “very valuable”. With such positive feedback, the FoS faculty members are considering subsequent field trips where students can conduct other types of field research in natural environments.

“We hope to include such immersive field exercises as a signature part of Foundations of Science. We might experiment with a series of optional and smaller trips to locations where students more deeply engage with nature as teams and conduct field research as part of the class,” shared Professor Penprase.