The walking “encyclopedia”
Spending 40 years teaching at various schools, Lee Meng Chew uses her skills as a volunteer at the Science Centre Singapore to educate visitors.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Lee Meng Chew, 74, is putting her skills as a teacher to good use as a volunteer at Science Centre Singapore. Once a week, or sometimes more, she walks from home to the Science Centre to educate kids and adults about herbs, spices and seeds, how fingerprints aid in police investigations, and the various vegetation in the eco-garden.
Ageless Online caught up with her at her post where she sat behind a cart with two compartmentalised boxes sitting on top, filled with various herbs, seeds and spices, and plastic bottles containing some herbs and spices for visitors to smell. As we failed miserably in naming each of these herbs, spices and seeds, and got confused between an unhusked and husked seed, Meng Chew patiently provided explanations and punctuated her talk with little nuggets of other details.
Beside her, she has a stash of various packets which she readies in her educational talk – from a packet of curry powder to a small bag of kaffir lime leaves which are commonly used in some Southeast Asian cuisine. These bags are brought from home to further complement her explanations.
Having already had 20 visitors listen to her talk, we chatted with the mother of three and grandmother of eight as she waited for more “students”:
When did you start at the Science Centre? And were you volunteering earlier?
I started in 2013. Before that time, I was sitting on my housing estate’s neighbourhood committee as an executive member, and was charged with telling people about activities in our neighbourhood. It was through that that I found out the Science Centre needed volunteers.
Before sitting on the committee, I wasn’t doing any volunteer work. After I retired in 2000, I was a relief teacher at a school and an English tutor at an after-school care centre. At the same time, I looked after my grandchildren for four years after which my daughters and daughters-in-law decided to take over, when more little ones came along.
With volunteer work, I felt that since I had time, I might as well do something meaningful and fruitful to help the community. It helps that the Science Centre is near home. I also felt that I wanted to do something I was comfortable in and the Science Centre work is really an extension of what I was doing as a teacher.
You were a teacher?
For 40 years, eight months and 23 days! I taught at a Chung Cheng High (Branch) for 20 years and at Jurong Primary for 14 years. I was also with some other primary schools earlier.
So how often are you at the Science Centre?
I usually come every Tuesday from 10am to 1pm. This is fixed. Occasionally, if the manager needs help with the eco-garden, I will come over.
Can you share about the different posts you have?
Sometimes, I am an explainer of herbs, spices and seeds, or I tell visitors facts about fingerprints and how they are lifted by the police. Other times, I could be a facilitator at the DNA lab, assisting a science educator. I occasionally take visitors through the eco-garden too.
Sometimes, I help out at the puzzles station, which encourages visitors to exercise their brain and think out of the box. Besides puzzles provided by the Science Centre, I also bring along some from home that my daughter buys when she is overseas.
As a volunteer, I get to choose the post I want to take charge of, and I can decide on the assignment a week before so I have some time to do research prior to my volunteer sessions.
Some of these assignments require trainings – for example, DNA lab facilitators have to undergo a day of training to familiarise oneself to the equipment. I try to attend as many such volunteer trainings as possible, so that I can be deployed in other areas.
You know quite a bit about herbs, spices and seeds. How did you pick up all this information? Through research? Or was the information given to you when you started the post?
Some of the knowledge I gained over the years through interactions with neighbours and friends who also grow plants. Others, I learnt through Internet research. There are also times when Science Centre staff share information with me.
Any interesting tips?
Here are a few tips that I’ve tried myself:
a) Put a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon in either hot milk, Milo or cocoa to help you sleep.
b) Ointment that has cloves as the main ingredient can help get rid of wind in the stomach. It can also help relieve muscle pain.
c) Turmeric has an ingredient called curcumin which has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
What do you like about volunteering at the Science Centre?
I get to meet new friends who are young and older, and get to interact with visitors. While interacting, I advertise about Singapore – I ask foreigners if they are enjoying their trip and I introduce other areas of Singapore that they might not know.
I feel good about [the act of] giving rather than receiving – there’s this sense of satisfaction. Sometimes, I get to impart knowledge and the visitors also have something to share.
Is science something new to you?
Since I have the time, I believe I can still learn. Science may not be my forte but I can learn a little bit more.
One of the things I have learnt about is the brain, its parts and functions. This was for Brain Awareness Week 2013, when I was once tasked to provide explanations about the brain. As I had very little prior knowledge about this subject, I had to read up on related facts to prepare myself. I found that very interesting because the brain is a complicated organ, and I acquired new information that I did not previously know.
For example, some people think that brain cells die over time, and will not be produced anymore. But I read somewhere that brain cells do grow if you continue to use them. Because I believe in this, I initiated an interest group in my housing estate where elderly residents meet once a month for brain-stimulating activities such as puzzles and Sudoku.
In your talks, you also share stories of your younger days. Can you share some of these stories and a glimpse of your past?
I have 10 siblings (one has since passed on). My father was a clerk, and my mother a housewife. In my younger days, my family lived in an attap house in a rubber estate. One day while we were eating, we saw a snake inside the house on the roof. We took a stick to bring it down and had to kill it.
Because we lived on the farm then, we had pigs and chickens. I noticed pigs would crack the rubber seeds, throw out the shell and then eat the insides. That is how I knew the rubber seed is edible, although not for humans.
We were also very environmentally-friendly. For example, when the rubber seeds burst open, my father would pick up the shells to use as firewood. We also played five stones with rubber seeds that we picked up.
Sometimes we would disturb friends by rubbing the rubber seeds on the cement floor until they became hot, and then place the seeds in our friends’ hands, which would made them angry.
Any memorable moments as a volunteer?
It feels good whenever visitors respond positively to the knowledge that I share.
Are you doing other volunteer work besides at the Science Centre?
I still serve in the neighbourhood committee as an executive member.
Also, I teach English to adults (the oldest being 80+, while the youngest is in her early 50s) at Loving Heart Multi-Service Centre once a week. This is my third year doing it; I started volunteering there around the same time as I did at the Science Centre.
Additionally, I will be attending two trainings with the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) that will equip me with mentoring and basic counselling skills so that I can be a mentor and befriender to caregivers.
I hope to continue volunteering for as long as I can.
Anything else keeping you busy?
I brisk walk in the mornings and evenings. Additionally, I serve as a grassroots leader in my constituency, hence I occasionally attend courses at the National Community Leadership Institute.
Any advice you can give to other potential volunteers?
Don’t be afraid to volunteer and do what you are most comfortable in.
If you love to contribute and have an interest in science, consider volunteering at the Science Centre.
I believe that it is always better to give than to receive, so I’d encourage elderly individuals to come out and serve, because contributing to society will make you feel good.