Jungle learning

CLUTCHING their ‘discovery kits’, the Orang Asli kids skipped off into the jungle.

In well-worn slippers, they make their way past the muddy path, crossing a stream along the way.

Mats are laid out in front of a rickety bamboo shack. They eagerly open their kits, filled with pens, note pads, plastic containers and magnifying glasses.

After a quick briefing on their ‘mission’, these Hutan’s Classroom participants rush off.

Two hours later, they re-group, excitedly holding up the containers now filled with insects, shrimps, fishes, tadpoles, lizards, praying mantises, grasshoppers and leeches.

Zurina Mohd Forizal, 11, enjoyed the morning with her friends.

She’s one of the few who attends mainstream school.

“My favourite subjects in class are Bahasa Melayu, English, Science and Mathematics. But I like learning in the jungle better because I come here with my parents when I’m not in school. I help them tap rubber,” the shy Year Five pupil said.

Orang Asli kids learn better in the jungle because it’s the environment they’re most comfortable in, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) committee member Dr Muhammad Heikal Ismail recently discovered.

“Today they’re learning about living things in the jungle.”

The Celik Volunteer Club (CVC) adviser has been conducting classes at the Orang Asli village in Kampung Kachau Luar, Semenyih, with club president Amirrudin Azmi, 24, since March last year.

Initially, classes were held at the village surau from 10am till noon.

About 20 to 30 children aged between four and 12 attend the classes.

But, Dr Muhammad Heikal, who’s also a senior lecturer at the UPM chemical and environmental engineering department, found that the children’s minds would wander.

“It was tough. Their attention span’s very short. Less than an hour and they would get fidgety. Some would get up and leave.”

It wasn’t until December that Hutan’s Classroom - a STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) learning method inspired by nature - came about.

The method was the result of a collaboration between UPM, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) and TFA Academy, said Dr Muhammad Heikal.

“The method was designed specifically for Orang Asli kids. Classes were moved from the surau to the jungle because this is where they feel most at home.

“After just one month, we saw results. The progress and feedback were positive. More kids started turning up and those who were with us from day one would stay for the whole two-hour session. They asked questions. They’re excited. They want to learn.

“And they understand better. The environment and the method made a huge difference. Even I was surprised.”

Encouraged, CVC’s now conducting science classes in the jungle.

“When we started, the goal was just to get the children to read and write basic stuff. Remember, most of them don’t go to school. Some can’t even write their names.

“Now, these kids are ready to move on from ABCs to bigger challenges. Since last month, we’ve been conducting science classes inspired by the ‘Little Einsteins’ interactive preschool series that introduces kids to nature,” said Dr Muhammad Heikal.

Next up, said Amirrudin, is to explore the potential of jungle resources.

The Cendawan Project will see them taking kids into the jungle to identify items that are edible.

And come July, Hutan’s Classroom will see the kids moving on to technology under the Supernova project. The duo will be working with non-governmental organisations to expose the kids to computers and set up library facilities at the surau. They’ll also be collaborating with UPM to bring food printing technology to the village.

Dr Muhammad Heikal is excited. It’s his research area.

He’s planning to show the community how 3D food printers can convert jungle resources into tasty products.

“I want to get the children excited about what they can do with the resources available to them. Maybe by experiencing technology, they’ll want to learn and be part of it.”

Founded by the two friends in March last year, the CVC was set up to promote literacy among children, said Amirrudin.

The focus is on teaching marginalised kids who have fallen through the cracks because of poverty.

At the moment, they’re the only full-time volunteers.

“We have 10 other volunteers but they cannot commit to a fixed schedule. We’re hoping that some companies or individuals - especially students - can join us.”

Among the first time volunteers who turned up with lunch, and pre-loved toys and clothes, were engineer Muhamad Zulhusni, 27, his wife Munirah Rosdi, 29, and former National Service Training Programme (better known by its Malay acronym PLKN) trainer Farahiza Saupi, 38.

Munirah, who has always been interested in volunteer work, stumbled on the club on social media.

“I’ve been looking for a worthy cause for some time now. It’s scary sometimes even if your intention is good because there are so many scammers these days.

“Then I came across Hutan’s Classroom. I asked friends if they were willing to chip in for some food.” She believes that many are like her - wanting to help genuine causes but not knowing how to go about it. And she’s planning on rounding up others to come teach the kids.

“My husband and I come from architectural backgrounds so maybe we can teach them about buildings and if there are funds, we can even take them into the city to see the sky scrappers.”

Encouraging youngsters, especially students, to volunteer, she said activities like these not only benefit society, but can help improve soft skills like communication and teamwork.

Farahiza, who brought her four-month-old baby and nine-year-old son along, came because she wanted to know more about the project.

“I was a PLKN trainer for almost two decades and we had many activities in the jungle. Since I’m a housewife now, I can share my experience, train the volunteers, or teach the kids.”

She brought her eldest to expose him to others who haven’t had the opportunities he’s had.

“It’s important to learn to give back to the community from a young age. It makes me sad to see that we still have children who cannot read or write despite how developed the country is.”

Tearing up, she asked: “If not us, who else? It’s our responsibility as Malaysians to help where we can.” - By CHRISTINA CHIN

For details on CVC’s activities, log on to https://www.facebook.com/HutanClassroom/

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