We speak to Dr. Eden Steven Ph.D., an Indonesian research scientist and Director of the first enrichment program – called Applied Science Academy (ASA) – to be introduced under Sekolah Pelita Harapan’s (SPH) new education model. This program was initiated mid-last year to encourage students to explore and develop their interest in the world of science through advanced scientific research and practices.
Q: Applied Science Academy (ASA) program is the first program to have been initiated under a new education model called The Centre of Excellence. Can you tell us more about this program and why was it established?
The Centre of Excellence model aims to provide students of Grade 10 to 12 with extra support in specialized areas of interest. It is an outlet for these students to explore their passion with the right guidance and resource. The first one to be initiated is ASA, which is a research-based extracurricular activity that encourages and nurtures students with a strong passion for science.
Currently, we have multiple research areas under this program – biotechnology, machine learning, data science, robotics, material science, food technology, alternative energy, and pharmacy – because these were the areas I found that had the most interests from the applicants. Every year, these subjects are revised accordingly, either new ones are added or old ones are removed. To support this program, we also provide new and advanced lab equipment and materials as well as an authentic exposure to research environments.
Q: Can you tell us how does the program work? What should students expect from enrolling in this program?
It is not a class, so it is not mandatory and there are no set syllabuses. In fact, the students will not know what they will be learning until they join the program. This is what is exciting about research based learning. First, students will do an entrance test, then write about what they love in science, propose some topics that they think they are interested to pursue and finally, do an interview. Based on that, we will enroll a maximum of 24 students for the program as currently we only have enough resources to work efficiently and support that many students. The results will give us a rough idea on the kinds of topics that the students are interested to work on. Then, I will be assigning each student with a suitable mentor(s), who is an expert in that particular field to help them with their research. This program is individually based unless there is a very good reason to pair up.
The program lasts for about eight months, starting from August to April. There will be a two-month probation period for both the students and mentor to gauge their level of interest before choosing to continue with the program. Should the student feel like they are unable to proceed for whatever reason then they are given the option to withdraw and we will replace that spot with another potential applicant. Students are expected to spend about 2-4 hours per week on their research outside of their class schedules.
Q: What do you wish to achieve through Applied Science Academy program? How can this program help children flourish in the academic world?
Through this program, I want students to experience “research” early because research pushes you to be a self-learner and gain knowledge from beyond textbooks. This program requires you to look for resources and knowledge from outside school. It also takes a lot of creativity and patience to find a scientific problem and solve it. It will also teach them to learn from their failures. Sometimes their experiment or idea doesn’t work out the way they intend it to be and they think that they have failed. But it is not a failure, it is what it is. Research allows you to explore many different paths and get many different answers along the way. I want to change that mindset and make kids believe that failure is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it is an opportunity for success when you look at it from a different perspective. We hope to come up with new solutions, products, and applications that can help the nation.
Q: Since establishing this program late last year, what kinds of scientific breakthroughs have students achieved? Share with us some inspiring stories from students.
Every one of these students has interesting and incredible topic, it has been a pleasure to see their growth. However, some cases that have really caught my attention include this one student who discovered a kind of bacteria in kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage) and terasi (shrimp paste) that can dissolve blood clots, which means it can potentially be applied as cardiovascular disease treatment. We are currently preparing this work for publication.
Another one is an alternative band-aid made from natural products, silk, and alginate, which are considered as bio-compatible, bio-renewable and bio-degradable products. Silk and alginate can be processed into transparent plastic. But when they are both combined in a specific way, we found that it becomes a good absorbent. We also mix some anti-bacterial agent to this plastic. The idea is to make this band-aid only stick to and treat the wounded area, and the expected result is to get the band-aid to fall off automatically after healing. This reduces the chances of allergies and infections.
Another student who was interested in physics is in the middle of a study about a crystal that can store light and glow in the dark. He also developed an automatic way of gathering data without him having to be physically present for it. It is also analyzed automatically by a programming script that he wrote. He presented this work at an International Symposium for Modern Optics and Its Applications in Jakarta a few months ago and won the best poster award. He was the only 10th grader presenter amongst experts from all over the world.
Two students also paired up to do an incredibly complicated project involving robotics to help disabled people. They worked on a mechanical system that can help paralyzed people to move things. So there is a camera that can track the movements of an eyeball. This camera is then connected to a robotic arm, which moves and picks up things according to the eye’s movement. This camera system is programmed with an AI so it can recognize any eye so ultimately this system can be used by anyone. The incredible part about this case is that we did not teach any proper programming in class so these kids have learned to master programming, microcontrollers, science, and mechanics as well as advanced maths on their own.
Q: As an alumnus in SPH, tell us about your experience as a student before compared to now?
Oh, a lot has changed! Back in the day, there was barely a lab there. If we had to do the research about A, B, and C, we would only be able to do half of A. But with that limitation, we were able to learn strong basics and build a strong foundation from great teachers. The culture here has always been very “non-textbook” so we were thought to dream and work with and without the book. This helped me with my approach to learn and teach, which is to draw inspiration from outside. Now, we have equipment that I never imagined a school could have like sensors so I do not want the kids to waste this opportunity but to utilize the facility instead.
Q: After pursuing your studies and carrier in the USA, what inspired your decision to return home?
I have always considered Indonesia as my home and at some point, you wish to go back to your roots. It was obviously a big step for my family and I especially since many people discouraged the decision. Most people said a lot of horror stories such as “there will be no merit to my researches here” or “lack of opportunities” and “little pay”, which had some truth in it as I faced some struggles but it’s my home – I felt safe and responsible to give back. Eventually, an opportunity showed up at the right timing and I decided to experiment on myself by taking this leap.
It has been two years since I moved and it has been the time of my life.
Q: As an Indonesian researcher for the past 8 years, what has been the most rewarding part of your career?
In 2013, I had a research of mine published in a popular scientific journal called Nature Communications. Another research I had done in Indonesia was also recently published in a Nature-related publication.
But when I think about it, the most rewarding part of my career was coming here to teach these students and also opening my own education center for science in Jakarta. The center provides a safe space for students from high school and universities, as well as interns, and industries to conduct research and innovate. Moving here and teaching made me so much more involved in my field, all thanks to these curious kids.
By: Divyha Pridhnani-Bhojwani