Many little steps add up to big important picture

NUS High School of Mathematics and Science students (from left) Zhou Jiahao, Lam Tze King and Ernest Teo You Cheng are part of the "step out for science" project.
NUS High School of Mathematics and Science students (from left) Zhou Jiahao, Lam Tze King and Ernest Teo You Cheng are part of the "step out for science" project.PHOTO: DANIEL NEO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Data from device that schoolkids carry will help shape policies, plan for the future

Singapore's largest science experiment, and one of the world's most ambitious citizen science projects, is roping in more than 250,000 students to "step out for science".

The National Science Experiment will see schoolchildren aged eight to 18 carrying a sensor which will measure everything they do - from the number of steps they take to their carbon footprint.

This data, collectively, will provide big-picture information eagerly awaited by government agencies. It could help shape better transport-planning by shedding light on commuters' activities, or be used by healthcare agencies to monitor the movements of the elderly.

So far, about 300 students from a few schools have taken part in the pilot phase of the project organised by the Ministry of Education and National Research Foundation (NRF), in partnership with Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Science Centre Singapore and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

The project aims to involve at least 100,000 students this year. Its first phase will start by October (schools can choose either Sept 28 or Oct 5), while the second phase will start in November.

The entire project will go on till 2017, with each year addressing different issues.

Each student will carry a "laboratory on a lanyard", said Assistant Professor Erik Wilhelm of SUTD's Engineering Product Development Pillar, who helped to develop the device. "It's a great opportunity for young people to learn the Internet of Things," he said.

The 50g device- which contains sensors for temperature, light intensity and humidity, among other things, costs about $100 to make.

Students wear it to keep track of their activities.

To protect their privacy, the information logged is identifiable only to the person carrying the tracker. So students can see only their personal individual data, in addition to group data.

The pilot phase involved students from CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School, Tanjong Katong Girls' School (TKGS) and Cedar Primary School; the data collected has helped to shed light on the students' activity and travel patterns.

Secondary school students, for instance, were found to have taken about 7,000 steps daily on average, compared with primary school pupils who took about 5,000 steps.

Primary school pupils also tend to live nearer to their schools, travelling an average distance of less than 3km to get there, while secondary students travelled an average distance of less than 8km.

While the data is quite "intuitive" as home-school distance is considered in balloting for primary school places, it could be used for deeper data-mining, said NRF's director of programmes, Mr George Loh.

More information on the mode of transport, for instance, can be gathered to see how it affects the distance travelled. "We want to build up knowledge on a national level about our environment and this device is very powerful to do that," explained Mr Loh.

"All these data points can help agencies... to gain some insights and form conclusions."

But beyond that, it is hoped that students will develop an interest in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as such talent is vital in the building of Singapore as a smart nation and to develop a world-leading biomedical hub.

One user, Secondary 3 TKGS student Nilopher Banu Zakir Hussain, said she was fascinated by how the device was able to measure so many things at the same time despite its compact size.

"For the three days when I carried the data logger, I was very curious about how it recorded all the readings in my surroundings," said the 15-year-old.

Some students have already started experimenting with the device and coming up with ideas on how it can be used.

NUS High School of  Mathematics and Science used the device to identify possible dengue hot spots in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park based on factors such as humidity and temperature. The project, which won an award last month under the Singapore Land Authority's Singapore Geospatial Challenge, identified three hot spots - in the park's fitness corners and areas near stagnant water bodies.

When asked how the project came about, Year 4 student Zhou Jiahao, 16, said: "We know that one of the problems people face in parks is mosquitoes and dengue... And after some research, we found that mosquitoes breed better under certain conditions."

Moving forward, the team hopes to use fluorescent tagging and mosquito traps to find out where these mosquitoes move to.

One of the most exciting features about the sensors is that students can program it themselves, said Prof  Wilhelm. "I've seen some of the most amazing learning transformations happen when students are given something and are able to play around with it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2015, with the headline 'Many little steps add up to big important picture'. Print Edition | Subscribe