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Science Centre Singapore: putting the joy in STEM learning

Professor Lim Tit Meng on the importance of science communication

Professor Lim Tit Meng

Science Centre Singapore takes science literacy to the next level by making science accessible and engaging, creating an environment where young people are empowered to advance their own learning.

Professor Lim Tit Meng has been CEO of Singapore Science Centre for ten years, promoting STEM as an engine for a knowledge-based innovation economy, championing creative science communication, and inspiring youth.

Professor Lim & Science Centre Singapore

Speaking about his career and how he came to join the institution, he says:

“I’m a biologist by training and am a professor in biology at the National University of Singapore. But I’ve been seconded out from a university to be the chief executive officer of the Science Centre Singapore. I’ve been in this role for 10 years now. I’m a biologist because I love plants and animals. I grew up on a farm and I really enjoy studying nature, looking at nature, and understanding nature.”

“When I was in the university, I did a lot of outreach, giving talks to students, to teachers and to the public. That’s the reason why the Minister of Education recognised me and thought that I could be a suitable leader for the Science Centre.

“Our Science Centre is a statutory body under the Ministry of Education, and since I have been very active in science communication and outreach, I was invited to come in and hopefully transform the Science Centre, so to speak.”

An unorthodox approach

Professor Lim is known for his unorthodox and entertaining methods of connecting children with science. He even once wrote a musical titled Sex Cells to teach young people about sexual reproduction using song and dance. He says:

“I teach developmental biology, and when people ask what’s it’s all about, I say, it’s about how babies are made. Classes would typically start by introducing the sperm and the egg cells, and going on to how fertilisation will lead the zygote to divide into many, many cells.

“When I was a student, learning this topic in developmental biology, one thing I found challenging was visualising the complex movement of the cells.

“It’s very easy to imagine one cell after fertilisation dividing into many, just as if you’re chopping up a watermelon, but when the morphology starts to change, when you have to visualise the inside and outside, the head and the tail, the left and the right, the cellular interaction, it becomes complex.”

science centre singapore

“It is important to visualise. When I did my courses, I liked to play with this whole idea. You must picture the cells; where they are born, where they go, and how they end up becoming specialised parts of our human body, to make us functional. If you can picture it, you can understand it. If you can’t visualize it, it’s meaningless.

“That is one of the philosophies behind my unorthodox way of communicating science. I also like to use a little bit of drama, to put the students into the picture: ‘Now you are a cell. How do you move from this part of the embryo to another part of the embryo? If you are going to become a neuron, how do you migrate to the brain to become a specialised cell?’”

Sex education at Science Centre Singapore

He once played a trick on his students:

“I served in the army for of my national service: I’m a captain. So I came in one day to lecture in my uniform, and I said, ‘I’m looking for my twin brother. I understand he’s a professor here. I need to see him.’

“My students were confused about whether it was true or not, and it led on to the topic of how identical twins came about because part of the understanding on biology is how, when the developing cells split into two lots, if they split sufficiently early, you can get identical twins.”

seeing heat-carousel Singapore Science Centre

“So that led to the whole lecture, which was talking about how twins are clones.

“Later, when I had the chance to head Science Centre Singapore, I thought sex education is an important science-based topic. So, in 2014, I transformed the first lecture of my course, so that it introduced Mr Sperm and Ms Egg, almost like Romeo and Juliet. I wrote a script to make it into a science musical, and I played with the words Sex Cells, spelt CELLS, not SELLS.

“Sex Cells is a musical which talks about the journey of the sperm looking for the egg. I couldn’t write the music, but I wrote the script.

“I wanted certain songs at different parts of the sequence, for example, there had to be a love song, a duet, when the sperm and the egg finally come together. And along the way, the sperm had to struggle through a very long journey, and face a lot of chemicals and all kinds of situations in the reproductive tract, where there’s some kind of war going on. All the sperms are competing.”

Sex Cells

The story begins with a little girl and her father going to visit the mother in the hospital, where she is having a baby. The girl askes her father, ‘Where do babies come from?’

“I created a scenario like West Side Story. There are two gangs of sperm cells, fighting. And then I created two leaders; one is a good leader, one is a bad leader, and, of course, the good leader will finally find his way to the egg.”

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“Along the way, there are fights and struggles, and then the two leaders reach a point where they have to decide whether to choose the fallopian tube on the left or right, so they go different ways. Of course, only one side will have the ovulated egg, so one troop will go and find nothing. So there is a lot of jeering and teasing: ‘You will be the losers – you’ll be the ones to pick the wrong route – we will meet the egg.’

“That was the story behind the musical.”

Everyone is unique

Professor Lim also considered individuality:

“I thought about how important it is to look at individual lives as very precious and unique because no two sperms are the same, and no two eggs are the same in terms of genetic makeup. So every successful union of the sperm and the egg is a unique DNA combination. That’s why we can use DNA fingerprinting – because everyone is uniquely different.

“So the main part of the story concerns the sperm and egg cells, and the dramatized fight for the sperm to reach the egg. At the end of the story, the father, having told the daughter how her younger brother came about, says:  

“‘Now you know that you’re unique. There’s no one like you on Planet Earth because nobody will be exactly the same as you in your genes, therefore value and love yourself, and also love and respect the people around you, because they are also uniquely different. And, and also remember that in you is a champion spirit, because only the champions get to make you who you are, so when you face trouble and failure in life, remember that champion in you.’”

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“It’s a positive twist to the whole thing; telling the daughter not to be afraid of change, and that even if she fails, even if she doesn’t study enough to get good grades, she shouldn’t blame herself. We must love everybody; everybody’s unique. So that is how I dramatised the biology of reproduction.

“The show ran for four nights, with a full house for every show. Teachers loved it because being a musical it cut through the taboo; teachers and children could talk freely about the topic.

“We won a Creative Science Competition Award for this way of communicating science. So that’s one way: I used drama.”

Science Centre Singapore & Interspectral

Visualisation, he reiterates, is key:

“When I went to Science Centre Singapore, I encouraged and facilitated visualization, and with digital technology coming into the mainstream we realised the immersive power and the engagement potential of digital technology. So we created a first-of-its-kind immersive E-3 exhibition.”

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E-mmersive Experiential Environments is an immersive exhibition featuring virtual reality headsets and 3D 360-degree environments that take participants on a journey to the outer reaches of the known universe and to the deepest recesses of the human brain. Science Centre Singapore also works with Interspectralthe Swedish visualisation company.

“That started a new trend for us. That’s how we came to install our Interspectral Inside Explorer touch tables. We know this means of visualisation is a trend that will never turn back. And we also realised that the first toy many young kids have is probably an iPad. Every child expects to be digitally, visually engaged. We also see this in the learning environment.

“That’s why we coined the idea of the EPIC Learner: experiential, participatory, image-driven and connected to social media. We saw this trend unfolding and amplifying in many schools, and realized our science centre must cater to those EPIC learners, so when they come to the centre they can be taken on an epic journey, so to speak.”

Digital visualisation

Science Centre Singapore invested from that point on in digital visualisation.

Professor Lim comments:

“Because of that, when we hit the COVID-19 circuit breaker, and the schools all closed, we were ready. We were already starting to produce digital visualization and storytelling narratives, and could quickly roll this out. We call them transmedia learning platforms, where we can do education and outreach online using digital cyberspace without the constraint of venues.

“The Ministry of Education was very happy. They had been a bit concerned that if the students or the kids at home were not meaningfully engaged, then the parents would be even more stressed.”

Interspectral COVID exhibition

One thing led to another:

“Because we already had the Interspectral touch table, and we know, like and believe in the product, when Interspectral developed the interactive COVID-19 exhibition, we signed up for it, put it on to the exhibition gallery, and used it to educate the public. Again, the beauty of digital is that it can all be done remotely, and regularly updated. So the content and experience can be refreshed.”

Data is key

Science Centre Singapore has another large digital experience in its planetarium:

“It is in a dome. We can project data from NASA and Google Earth, and so on. Because it is digitized, we can customise content to tell different stories. Digital data is a big resource. I sometimes use the analogy of a kitchen.”

dome at Singapore Science Centre

“In the kitchen, you have all the ingredients, the raw materials. It’s up to you how you combine them together. You can cook a spicy dish, or a soupy thing, or something completely different. You become like a master chef. It is up to you to choose how to combine the ingredients and create something nobody could have imagined.

“As a science centre, we are always communicating the latest information and latest knowledge. If we totally depend on built exhibits, they only have a certain lifespan. After five years or so they are dated.”

Digital has the capacity to be updated and refreshed regularly.

STEM education & COVID-19

Touching on the importance of STEM education in the context of the COVID pandemic, Professor Lim says:

“I would say that the pandemic is a wake-up call for us, in that we should really pay attention to science, technology, engineering, and maths. We need science to understand the pandemic.

“Without science, we are at the mercy of fake news and rumour. We are at the mercy of those who disbelieve in the virus and the data. If you have no science literacy, you won’t understand or appreciate the importance of social distancing. You wouldn’t understand why lockdowns and isolation are necessary.”

“The virus needs context. It cannot live by itself. It needs to jump from one host to another. Without science, we wouldn’t know how to handle this virus. We wouldn’t understand the biology of the virus without science. We wouldn’t be able to analyse how the pandemic may unfold, or understand the mutation of the virus.

“The science in STEM is the basis for us to use technology and engineering to come up with gadgets and tools for virus detection and sampling. And mathematics is important because you need to calculate the rate of transmission, so you know how to flatten the curve, and how to use that to understand the development of vaccines. And to do vaccines, you need to do clinical trials, which, again, use mathematics to get statistically significant results.

“COVID-19 is a demonstration that we must really pay more attention to STEM education.”

Science skills in demand

In addition, he says:

“With the benefit of STEM education, people are more skilled. The future will depend on skills.

“People talk about ‘the new normal’. In a new normal, we will see the replacement of much of the traditional work. STEM skills are necessary for people who want to go into digital services, robotics, biomedical, cyber-surveillance fields.”

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“Scientists will be needed to understand the fundamental aspects of all kinds of diseases, transmission, and so on; engineers and technologists will be needed to translate basic science research into applied research, into products and solutions; into platforms that can sustain the world.”

STEM education at Science Centre Singapore

Science Centre Singapore aims to highlight the importance of and provide good STEM education.

“We have a slogan: ‘May our youth be empowered by STEM.’

I strongly believe that if you combine STEM power with youth power, they will have a really fantastic future

“I strongly believe that if you combine STEM power with youth power, they will have a really fantastic future. We need to educate the young people so that they have that power, that literacy, to come up with innovative solutions. Because the world is facing a lot of challenges: climate change, global warming, rising sea levels, pollution.

“We have seen California burning, and floods and typhoons elsewhere. We need to have strong STEM education so that our young people will have a future. Otherwise, they will be inhabiting a world that is ailing.”

New solutions

“The older generations have created a lot of destruction: deforestation, too much urbanisation, the pollution of the oceans. At one point plastic was a Nobel-winning innovation, and the world embraced it. Now plastic is such a pain. “

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“It is through STEM innovation that people are now trying to come up with alternative ways of making biodegradable packaging, for example. And even looking at microbes and other life forms that can digest the microplastics in the ocean.

“These are all related to STEM education. Singapore Science Centre has an immense role to play, because we are informal, and not examinable.  We just want to let people know that science is beautiful and science is powerful. When you apply it, you can make a big difference to the world. It’s not just shouting slogans to save the world; it’s actually doing something constructive.”

Encouraging curiousity

Professor Lim believes strongly that every child is born with the natural potential to become either a scientist or an engineer:

“Every child is always enquiring, always investigating, always asking why, why, why? And they are always innovating. You give them something which is meant for a certain purpose, and they will try to use it for something else.”

climate machine

Curiosity, investigation and innovation are born in all of us, he believes:

“The role of the science centre is to nurture this. The irony is that when you learn how to talk, your parents are happy. But then when you go to school, the first thing you are told is to keep quiet and sit down. It runs counter to the natural curiosity of a child.  It’s a blossom, that curiosity, and we kill it. The child decides not to ask anymore; not to find out, in case they get into trouble. They become compliant and obedient, instead.”

STEM Inc. at Science Centre Singapore

In order to establish the importance of studying STEM subjects, in 2014 Science Centre Singapore set up a unit dedicated to igniting students’ passion for STEM called STEM Inc, an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM); innovation and creativity, or Incorporation (Inc). Established in January 2014, its initiatives are supported by the Ministry of Education, Singapore.

The Industrial Partnership Programme (IPP) creates opportunities for students to get early exposure to the real-world STEM industries and careers, further enriching students’ learning experiences.

“STEM Inc rolls out STEM programmes in our mainstream schools. We experimented with  70 secondary schools,  and we told the Ministry of Education that STEM learning shouldn’t be examinable. That’s a paradigm shift.”

“In Singapore, the education system is very heavy on examination, because we depend on human resource talent. And examination seems to be the only way to assess that a student is capable or not.

“But now we know with STEM, you actually need to apply the skills. Application is more important than knowledge. So I said to the minister, ‘Please please make this non-examinable. Because we want to make the students learn, enjoy learning, and see the relevance, and find motivation from that. Not because they have to pass a test.’

“We have run this for almost five years now, and have passed through three Ministers for Education. All three like it very much, and have agreed to keep it non-examinable.”

Solving problems

Initially, the scheme was for secondary schools:

“Recently, the Ministry of Education suggested rolling it down to a younger age group as well. So we will also have learning programmes in primary schools.  This is a whole mindset change; we are looking at STEM as applied learning, as relevant. We want to make the learning of science, technology, engineering, and maths come alive. There’s no exam; students just do group learning, coming together to solve problems.”

We want to make the learning of science, technology, engineering, and maths come alive

“One way to test whether they understand is to have them compete in different arenas; different platforms. We are very happy to see that some students even won the award for STEM innovation organised by Shell, for example.

“The winning team went to London to take part in the global Bright Ideas competition. This proved that these students could understand, appreciate and apply what they learned in the classroom. Without having to go through an examination to assess whether they had gained the knowledge.

“This is how we transform education.”

The joy of learning at Science Centre Singapore

Universities are beginning to adapt:

“They are taking in students without totally relying on grades. They look at each student’s portfolio. If a student has a good portfolio of innovation, doing STEM, the capacity to come up with interesting challenges, then they shouldn’t need to worry too much about getting a clutch of A grades. A tech portfolio will carry a heavyweight in terms of going to a good university.

“They look less at grades, and more at what you can do, and what you will bring to the university. That is a growing trend. Singapore is also moving towards lifelong learning, where, it transpires, many of the skills you learned in school you need to unlearn, and then relearn.”

In the final analysis, Professor Lim says:

“In our STEM learning programme at Science Centre Singapore, we put an emphasis on relevance and the joy of learning.

“The joy comes about through, ‘I can do this; I can solve this; I can watch my team member, and I can come up with a solution.’ This is very powerful. And that brings us back to the EPIC learner, who is very experiential, very participatory, very image-driven, and connected – they’re connected to their friends, and connected to the world wide web. Collaboration is a skillset of the future.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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