THE latest buzz concerning the national school curriculum is a suggestion by Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Salahuddin Ayub for Agricultural Science to be introduced in all primary and secondary schools.
Currently offered as an elective SPM subject to select schools, questions are now being raised over the availability of capable teachers and how it can be integrated into the current syllabus.
Maths and Science teacher Zully Rahimie Zulkifli, who teaches at SK Ulu Semenyih, said the ability of a primary school to offer the subject would depend on its existing practices for active learning.
“Three years ago, the former principal set up a herb garden and mini zoo at the school with fish, birds and chickens to integrate with Science chapters about plants and animals so pupils could see and experience what was being taught,” said Zully.
Teachers were assigned to take charge of maintaining the mini zoo and herb garden with the help of pupils. But it was not all plain sailing. At first, all the chickens died. Some birds, after flapping into the fish pond to cool off, drowned.
But the teachers soldiered on and the children learnt basic lessons in animal and plant care.
Seeing how the pupils have also learnt patience, responsibility and empathy for animals from the herb garden and mini zoo, the primary school agreed to take part in a pilot RM3,000 Australian freshwater crayfish rearing project sponsored by Kajang Municipal Council (MPKj) this year.
Using a scaled-down, self-made aquaponic system which combines conventional aquaculture with hydroponics in a symbiotic environment, it was built upon the advice of the crayfish fry supplier.
To help the project along, Zully spent RM1,000 of his own money to instal an oxygen supply system.
The main goal remains rooted in education but MPKj councillor Rawiyiah Zakaria suggested it could be one way of exposing rural pupils to new entrepreneurship possibilities when she proposed it to the school last year.
As the project is still new, the crayfish supplier has given the school a two-week guarantee. Once the crustaceans start breeding, the supplier will buy the fries from the school. With this arrangement, the school is hoping the project would pay for itself.
Five boys, from Year Four and Five, have been assigned to look after the school’s 40 crayfish.
Zully chose them because they live nearby and can feed the crayfish on weekends.
At SMK Bandar Baru Sungai Long where Agriculture is offered as an elective subject for SPM, goats, chickens, padi patches, a mushroom farm plus a plethora of herbs and interesting plants like cocoa and noni can be found within the school compound.
“The students enjoy coming to school because of this,” said principal Zaitun Ibrahim.
And no, not once has there been a case of animal abuse by students at the school, she confirmed.
Included in the school’s “living laboratory” is a fertigation system, built from the budget allocated by the Education Ministry (MOE). (Fertigation is an agricultural technique that maximises crop yield through controlled application of water and fertilisers within a system.)
There are also two aquaponic sets and a hydroponic kit that uses the latest in nutrient film techniques given by the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi).
A new quail coop supported by the school cooperative is in the works.
Though immensely beneficial to students, Zaitun pointed out that the experiential method of learning is not cheap to maintain.
“We have 110 students in Forms Four and Five taking Agriculture. We are only given an allocation of RM35 per head by MOE. In truth, we need close to RM20,000 yearly,” said Zaitun.
Maintenance takes up a big chunk of expenses.
Zaitun said for now the school cooperative was paying for the goat feed and mushroom fertiliser with proceeds from meat and produce sales.
But she has to look for funds to replace the rain shelter for the fertigation shed and the upgrading of waste irrigation for the goat pen. She foresees complications for the latter as ruminant animals are no longer covered in the new syllabus.
However, the subject teacher, Bahador Kamis, has grown fond of the billy goat and would be heartbroken if anything were to happen to it.
So for now, Zaitun is hoping the school committee will consider adopting it as the school mascot.
Skills for students
Subjects that emphasise experiential learning come with challenges but it would be a pity for the students if schools are not willing to try, said Hulu Langat District Education Office technical and vocational assistant officer Mohd Fitri Omar@Ismail.
He explained that Agriculture was the rebranded name for Agricultural Science when changes to the national syllabus were made in 2017.
Of 39 secondary schools in the Hulu Langat district, he said SMK Bandar Baru Sungai Long was the only school offering Agriculture as an SPM elective.
However, Fitri said schools not offering the subject had taken their own initiative to start similar projects within their grounds.
“SK Ulu Semenyih, for example, was chosen for our pilot yabby farming project because many of their pupils are Orang Asli who are used to nature. So chances of the project doing well are high.
“SMK Khir Johari in Beranang does not offer the Agriculture subject but they have a kelulut (stingless) bee farm supported by the school cooperative, sustained with sales of kelulut honey.
“Even SMK Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur, a secondary school located in the suburbs, has a farm. Students built their own aquaponic system following the Rekabentuk and Teknologi syllabus, a subject introduced in 2014. It starts at Year Four and is taught until Form 3,” said Fitri.
He added that should Agriculture Science be taught in schools, it would bring back the fun in learning.
“Not only will our younger generation gain from having special skill sets, but they will also learn how to generate marketable products from nature, creating a sustainable and renewable cycle in the process,” Fitri said.