Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The Tasek Bera Group IV IB project
By Mr. Salleh, Mrs. Daly, Mr. Daly, Mr. Roderick and Mr. Miletti

January 25, 2004

ìDoes everyone have toilet paper? What about the first aid kit? I hope we have enough reagents to run all of the nitrogen tests. What about the pH meter? Is it working? Iíve got peanut butter and crackers!í

Doesnít sound like the typical research project, does it? But those were my thoughts at 1:15 p.m. on Friday the 16th of January. We were scheduled to leave at 1:30 and like any well-planned expedition, we had a last minute frenzy to make sure everything was in order.

Our destination would be the Tasek Bera wetland sanctuary. After the tenth grade Malaysian studies trip to the same location, Mr. Miletti and I decided Tasek Bera would be the ideal location to perform experiments and collect water quality data for the Group 4 IB Project. On top of that, we would have the rare opportunity to be aided by the native people that call Tasek Bera home, the Orang Asli Semelai, and tap into their vast knowledge of the local ecosystem.

To many, science seems an esoteric discipline. The dreaded course requirements for university has sent many an undergraduate packing. Unfortunately, many scientists perpetuate the myth of an unobtainable storehouse of knowledge by disguising simple concepts in a whirlwind of specialized jargon.

Not so at Mont Kiara International School! We were setting out on a 3-day journey that would answer basic questions about the ecology of Tasek Bera and demystify the process of scientific inquiry. All of this would be accomplished while living in a long house and performing our experiments in the great living laboratory of the Malaysian rainforest peat swamp environment! The students werenít intimidated, they were eager to go at it.

Our team couldnít have been better assembled: Mr. Roderick had the math, statistics and physics covered. Mr. Miletti was the chemistry and biology expert. Mr. Daly was interested in the geographical and cultural aspects of the village. Mrs. Daly, with her background in entomology and agriculture and an undeniable enthusiasm for ethnobotany was invaluable. I would lend a hand in the ichthyology, aquatic entomology and water quality departments. Ms. Mohala from Wetlands International was there to lend her knowledge and expertise of the Semalai and act as translator from Bahasa Malaysia to English, an invaluable asset!

Mr. Miletti briefed the students on the bus ride down and the students began to formulate research questions during the 3-hour journey. Experiments in a controlled laboratory are what most of us are used to, but nature rarely fits our pre-conceived notions of how she works. Thatís why itís crucial to get outside and do science, thatís also why field science almost never works out the way you think itís going to.

The multi-disciplinary approach we were taking would prove invaluable in the days to come, as each student and teacher would have a different perspective and contribution to the overall success of our endeavors.

We arrived at the jetty, unloaded our gear and equipment from the bus into the motor boats and set off for the long house. We glided over tannin stained water while barn swallows dashed here and there and giant, flame red dragonflies sat with wings splayed on emergent grasses. A maze of pandanu and Lepironia plants had replaced a tangle of sidewalks and concrete back home in Kuala Lumpur.

By nightfall research groups had been established, each with a specific focus.

My group would investigate fish and insect populations and their distribution in several different stream habitats.

Mr. and Mrs. Dalyís group would focus on forest soil chemistry and plant populations.

Mr. Roderickís group wanted to investigate stream flow and water chemistry but after a few initial experiments decided that the data they would collect would be insufficient for reporting any differences. After a bit of rethinking and discussion, the students decided to determine if there were any patterns in the distribution of pandanu and Lepironia plants in relation to the pH of the water.

Mr. Milettiís group decided theyíd like to know if there were any differences in water quality near the village as compared to the pristine wetland downstream.

A quick swim and, as Mr. Roderick will testify, we were blissfully snoring in our mosquito proof tents.

The next day turned out to be a gem. Clear skies and an early start fueled by mee goreng was all we needed to collect our data. The groups scattered to all corners of the wetland aided by their respective Orang Asli guide and research assistant.

By mid-afternoon we were back with samples collected and bellies ready for a rice and chicken lunch. A quick dip in the water and the students split off again to go and collect data.

My group stayed back since they had collected all their samples and began the arduous task of picking aquatic insects from the soil theyíd dredged up from the bottom.

By now Mr. Roderickís group had noticed a distinct pattern in the streamside vegetation distribution and was eager to document it and try and determine why they were located where they were.

Mr. and Mrs. Daly's group had collected samples near the long house, both in the forest and near the water's edge in the morning, so in the afternoon were taken to a similar site clear of human habitation to repeat sample collecting.

Interestingly, this group learned there was little significant difference in the chemistry of soils gathered in the forest areas near to and distant from human habitation. Though different from the samples collected near the water's edge again the presence of human settlement had little impact. As a useful sideline, the students examined an inland pandanus specifically used for building huts, and sampled edible leaves and fruits pointed out to them by their guide, Mr Rahim. He also made a drinking cup out of the leaf of one of the palm-like shrubs, showing that even the simplest conveniences can be provided by the forest!

That afternoon Mr. Daly's geography students also interviewed Mr Hashim, the manager of the Semelai's ecotourism project about the changes occurring among the Semelai with increasing modernization. He is very enthusiastic about ecotourism, but emphatic that the numbers of people visiting Tasek Bera must be low enough not to impact negatively on the environment that sustains his village. Mr. Hashim envisages ecotourism as both economic, providing income for the Semelai, and equally importantly, as educational, nurturing respect for the environment and culture of the Orang Asli Semelai among those people lucky enough to spend time at Tesak Bera.

A few hours later and everyone returned to camp, had a snack of pisang goreng and got busy analyzing their samples and making sense of their field data.

On the way for their afternoon swim, as the students clumped down the steps of the pier (built by a volunteer group some weeks before) they noticed several spectacular species of butterflies drinking near the water's edge. These were among the few groups of insects seen on the trip ñ surprising when the forest was all around us. This could provide the basis for a research question in the future, perhaps.

Later that evening, the chief of the Orang Asli, Batin Hokin joined us for a discussion about their marriage customs and the transition of the Semelai from a hunter-gatherer society to their recent venture into eco-tourism. We learned they had only switched from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the 1980ís and were growing more dependent on rice and rubber tapping for income and food. The chief said he was happy to see the eco-tourism working for them as it brought much needed income and educated students about their way of life.

Shortly thereafter we headed to bed, but before we did Caroline and Sara treated us to a little acoustic magic as they played and sang a few songs, a treat worth remembering.

Once again, Mr. Roderick was serenaded by the sound of snores woven into a chorus of night frogs and insects.

The next morning the students got busy writing up their findings and putting all of their data together. Iíve never seen students work harder or more earnestly with such focus and determination.

A quick boat trip back to the bus and we were on our way back to Mont Kiara.

The students gave talks about their experiences and the research they performed as we made our way back home.

When we pulled into the parking lot at MKIS we were both weary and wise from the research and the trip. We were now part of the wetland and it was part of us. The research we conducted gave us insights and knowledge into a place few people are lucky enough to visit. You certainly canít capture that sort of magic in the confines of the four walls of a classroom!

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