Current PhD Student Dr. Poh Tan Focuses Her Research on Developing Scientific Literacy in Young Children

December 13, 2017

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Poh Tan did not have an easy childhood. Domestic violence was a reality in her family. "I struggled for a while, often having the support of teachers and classmates from school, but the most important support was from my brother,” said Poh Tan. With a strong passion for science, Poh was determined to overcome her home problems. Through perseverance and motivation she became a stem cell specialist. Poh obtained her first PhD from the Faculty of Medicine at UBC, and she is now working on her second doctorate in Education at SFU.

Poh’s research focuses on developing scientific literacy in young children. She is interested in how to develop socially responsible citizens, and her idea is to sharpen children’s curiosity so they can question norms that might not be congruent with their world. “They can use the scientific thought process to question things like: someone told me that a female is not as good as a male. So, they can question this assumption instead of accepting it bluntly.”

Working with her senior supervisor, education professor Margaret MacDonald, Poh is in the data collection phase of her PhD and working with children as young as 4 years old. “I am trying to teach them science,” she explains. One of her goals is to reflect on her self-awareness as an educator but most importantly how educators bring their personal experiences to teaching methods. In addition, she is interested in what scientific literacy development looks like in pre-school children. “I hope that this particular curriculum that I want to develop and the way that I understand how a science educator should be or needs to be, will sustain the scientific curiosity in children throughout the years even in adulthood.”

The need for this curriculum intervention emerged from her observations in the classrooms. “If you look at science undergrad students here, there are lots of bright students but a lot of them are so scared to take a risk, to problem solve with their own ideas”, she says. From her perspective, students are so bound by either the pressure for grades or the degree itself. This pressure immobilizes their creativity and curiosity. “Our societies definition of success has turned into an economic value where material, money and a sense of entitlement fueled this expectation and neutralize the curiosity and exploration,” she explains.

So far in her PhD program, Poh has learned a lot and experienced an enormous paradigm shift as she used to view science through an objective lens. “I learned that life is not black-and-white. This is one thing that I would love to tell my scientist friends is that choices in life are not black-and-white”, she reflects. For someone who has been trained to be as objective as possible, Poh is experiencing changes in her personal life as well. “Teaching and education are an art and they are implicit. I’ve learned about myself on how to give myself permission to think more from a human being perspective which contrasts with science and objectivity.”

She also recollects that coming to the program was challenging and navigating this paradigm shift was difficult at times. However, she found the support and motivation that she needed coming from her cohort, the professors and her supervisor “All the professors and other PhD students in this program taught me that in the end, when you are looking at patients, there is a lot that is not black-and-white. I have never really considered patient’s lives around the trial session. Now, I see, I cannot code children’s reactions into numbers. Dr. Macdonald always says to me, with kids you cannot predict.”