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Making STEAM come true: How DOST’s science bus sparks students’ interest in
scholarships and science careers

After a pandemic-forced hiatus, the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) restarts nuLab, a mobile science laboratory for senior high school students. For its first road trip, it sailed to northern Iloilo to bring the nuLab brand of hands-on science activities facilitated by some of the country’s top scientists

May lighter side din pala ang science [So, there is a lighter side to science],” said senior high student Kent Venturanza after attending a session aboard nuLab, a mobile science bus of the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI).

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Students from Anilao National High School in Iloilo create lines and drawings using mathematical equations and solutions during the Mathsaya Magdrawing module of nuLab. (Photo by Kenneth Boston/DOST-SEI)

The session, titled “Mathsaya,” was facilitated by Dr. Jomar Rabajante, dean of the University of the Philippines Los Baños Graduate Studies, and Dr. Ariel Babierra, a professor from the same university.

Dr. Rabajante and Dr. Babierra inarguably captured the interest of the 24 participants, all senior high students from Anilao National High School in Anilao, a municipality in northern Iloilo.

“After more than two years, we were able to run again our nuLab training module on mathematics for visual arts. We hope we will be able to inspire students to pursue STEM careers in the future. Truly MathSaya Magdrawing.” said Dr. Rabajante, who delightfully infuses the arts in his advanced mathematics module.

The Mathsaya module was also conceptualized by Dr. Rabajante, especially for nuLab sessions.

“In nuLab, we have a deeper experience in Mathematics,” Venturanza said as they learned using GeoGebra and MS Excel to draw parametric curves.

Fellow senior high school student Gelyn Mae Rodriguez shared how they enjoyed the activities, learning and enjoying the concepts of polynomials, combination, and Cartesian coordinate system using Bezier curves.

The students were also amazed at how approachable the facilitators were.

“Science and mathematics are intimidating subjects for many students, so in nuLab, we’re trying to change that,” explained Candy Ilaw, project leader of nuLab. “It helps to have a pool of young, competent, and humble scientists and educators as facilitators.”

Ilaw used to teach at the Science Explorer (SciEx), the DOST-SEI’s first science bus. Aware that the students’ ability to learn has to do with overcoming fear and anxiety, she scouts for scientists who can establish a good rapport with students. And as it happens, the Philippines is not lacking in science professionals who are natural at teaching.

“We’re lucky that despite their accomplishments and busy schedules, many scientists and engineers are willing to teach at SciEx and nuLab,” she added.

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nuLab project leader Candy Ilaw gives DOST’s first brand ambassador Chris Tiu a tour of the science bus during nuLab’s launch at the 2019 National Science and Technology Week (Photo by Christian Chester Lozada)
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DOST-SEI Director Dr. Josette Biyo encourages students to ‘learn by doing.’ (Photo by Julie Anne Cusi / DOST-SEI)

NULAB, AT FIRST SIGHT

The bright yellow bus is DOST-SEI’s second mobile learning facility for young learners.

In 2010, the Institute launched the Science Explorer, catering to elementary and junior high school students. SciEx has traveled all over the country, prioritizing students from public schools in fourth and fifth-class municipalities without laboratories.

The nuLab science bus at the DOST compound in Taguig City. (Photo by Christian Chester Lozada)
DOST’s nuLab bus is equipped with modern classroom and laboratory facilities. It can accommodate 24 participants. (Photo by Christian Chester Lozada)

Requests for SciEx pour in from DOST regional offices and public and private schools in
various cities and municipalities. While there is always a plan to refurbish the bus or purchase another vehicle to turn it into a mobile lab, it did not materialize until the nationwide implementation of the K-12 curriculum.

In response to the new curriculum and the growing demand for SciEx, the DOST-SEI launched nuLab in 2019. The nuLab bus, aimed primarily at senior high school students, offers advanced STEM modules, focusing on emerging science courses to provide students a glimpse of these science careers.

While nuLab emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers, the modules are designed to develop students’ soft skills, particularly in communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Concepts and approaches in the arts are integrated, especially in modules such as Science
Filmmaking and Science Communication, giving nuLab participants the advantage of getting acquainted with STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) career paths.

Each session is limited to 24 participants and lasts for about three hours. nuLab offers advanced science and mathematics modules. It also introduces science communication to participants.

The bus is carefully designed, merging the modern classroom and laboratory. There’s a huge interactive board, individual monitor for students, laboratory-grade equipment, wireless sensors, and more.

There are instances when laboratory experiments are held outside the bus, in tents that the nuLab team would set up, or in classrooms to accommodate more participants.

Some schools also request special sessions for the teachers who wish to learn the modules’ content and the facilitators’ methods to implement these in their classes.

#PUSH4SCIENCE

For DOST-SEI, nuLab is so much more than a science bus; it’s more than STEM in motion. It is an experience. It’s a chance to meet a Filipino scientist, an exemplar, a possible mentor. It’s a vehicle for realization that STEM might be one’s rightful career and purpose, hence a project catchphrase, “STEM is my nuLab.”

Indeed, part of nuLab’s call-to-action is the Push4Science segment which introduces the DOST scholarship programs to students.

Marco Melgar, project leader of Push4Science scholarship caravan, said it’s a challenging but fulfilling project. “Promoting DOST scholarships is the easy part as the kids are generally interested. What’s difficult is knowing the reasons behind the potential scholars’ inability to apply, and yet you can’t do something about it.”

Melgar narrated that many students in remote areas do not have the resources or information on how to secure the documentary requirements, and the ability to pay for transportation when submitting their application and attending the examination.

The DOST-SEI encourages local leaders to provide a vehicle for the submission of application forms and during the examination day. This gesture would help attract more applicants and develop scientists and engineers in their areas.

“I didn’t know that nuLab is a project of the DOST and that we would get to hear about DOST scholarships here,” shared Venturanza. He thought he would be attending a simple science lesson inside the bus.

Both Kent Venturanza and Gelyn Mae Rodriguez admitted that they both wanted to enroll in non-science courses but now considering science courses because of their nuLab experience. The DOST scholarships offer a monthly stipend, book and transportation allowance, and other benefits beside tuition fee subsidy.

The scholarship benefits are enticing, but Rodriguez was especially inspired by the story of
DOST Scholar Rene Principe, one of the featured scholar stories in the Push4Science audio-visual presentation.

Principe, a proud DOST scholar and now a professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman National Institute of Physics, knows poverty so well and how it makes quality education so difficult to attain.

Push4Science, although a separate project from nuLab, joins the science bus to maximize its campaign. In the usual Push setup, Melgar and some DOST scholars visit target schools and speak to a crowd of high school students to explain scholarship privileges and encourage them to apply. In 2014, the year Push started, only 76% of municipalities in the country have DOST scholars. Now, it’s at 99%.

It’s always the road less traveled for Melgar when selecting municipalities for Push campaigns, as far-flung areas, often with communities struggling with poverty, are the best places to attract future DOST scholars.

ROAD TRIP TO ILOILO

The province of Iloilo is nuLab’s first ‘road trip’ since the COVID-19 pandemic. When the bus was launched at the National Science and Technology Week in July 2019, it had a few trips before the COVID-19 travel and gathering restrictions were implemented in March 2020.

“Iloilo province has always been on our list, and we’re excited to finally do this road trip,” Ilaw narrated. It wasn’t the easiest engagement for the nuLab team, especially with more than 24 hours of travel, including long waiting hours and an exhausting ferry ride.

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Officials from DOST-SEI, DOST Region VI, DepEd Region VI, and the Municipality of Anilao pose with school officials, staff, and teachers from Anilao National High School at the opening ceremony held last June 1. (Photo by Kenneth Boston/DOST-SEI)

The Iloilo Road Trip, held from June 1-12, consisted of three schools in the municipalities of
Anilao, Barotac Viejo, and Estancia in Iloilo. The team spent around three days in each school, delivering seven sessions per location.

For the entire trip, eight facilitators delivered six different modules to more than 500 participants.

In its first stop—Anilao National High School, teachers prepared an opening program attended by officials from DOST, the Department of Education (DepEd), and the Municipality of Anilao.

DOST-SEI Director Josette Biyo, who hails from Janiuay, Iloilo, mostly spoke in Hiligaynon. She encouraged students to ‘learn by doing’ and reflect on the experience.

“You cannot be what you cannot see,” she quipped. Dr. Biyo is known for her mastery of
‘experiential learning’ in teaching science research. This feat helped her become the first Asian teacher to win the Intel Excellence in Teaching Award and later earned her a minor planet named in her honor, “Planet Biyo.”

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Teachers from Anilao National High School are ecstatic to meet multi-awarded educator and their fellow Ilonggo, DOST-SEI Director Josette Biyo. (Photo by Kenneth Boston/DOST-SEI)
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The nuLab team with teachers from Barotac Viejo.

DOST-SEI Division Chief Dr. Ruby Cristobal was also present for the opening program. Dr.
Cristobal led the team behind SciEx, nuLab, and other youth science promotion programs. She reminded students to use science to think critically and that getting on the bus is a privilege they should not waste.

DepEd Division of Iloilo’s Ruben Libutaque pondered technology’s role in education at the
height of the pandemic, while DepEd Region VI’s Dr. Elena Gonzaga took note of the opportunities presented. Both mentioned their excitement to see what nuLab is all about and how it can respond to the changing education landscape.

After three days in Anilao, the team went to Barotac Viejo and then to their last stop, Estancia, which is almost four hours away from Iloilo City.

The heaps of preparations and coordination for the 12-day tour proved unimaginable,
considering the small team behind it. Aside from Ilaw and Melgar, the DOST-SEI nuLab team included Kenneth Boston, who oversaw logistics; Bern Arguelles, who handled post-event evaluation; and Julian Rubis and Quintin Dela Torre, who were in charge of the nuLab bus and backup vehicle.

During road trips, it’s not unusual to see everyone pitching in. You could see Ilaw cleaning test tubes, Melgar carrying equipment, and Boston taking photos for documentation and assembling tents in between. There must be solid teamwork for any road trip to succeed.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

In nuLab, the saying: “It takes a village to raise a child”—or a scientist—is composed of
facilitators, local government units, DOST regional offices, and the DepEd. They set road trips in motion and give students scientific mileage. The hard work and generosity of the institutions and individuals involved made every trip worthwhile and memorable, not just for participants but for the team as well.

The local government provided security for the staff, resource persons, and vehicles. They also escorted and assisted the team whenever needed. Officials would often show appreciation by dropping by the event or hosting a simple dinner.

In Anilao, Mayor Nathalie Debuque warmly welcomed the group to her home, while in Barotac Viejo, Mayor Nielo Tupas showed them the best places in the municipality.

DOST regional offices were also crucial on every road trip, especially in remote areas. They often assigned staff to assist and allot a service vehicle if needed.

Leo Lozada of DOST Region VI looks forward to more collaboration between DOST-SEI and regional offices for nuLab. “I hope the staff at the DOST regional offices will also get the opportunity to train and teach at nuLab. I was inspired and thrilled to be part of this road trip,” said Lozada.

Meanwhile, the DepEd helps the nuLab team identify schools that would most benefit from nuLab road trips. They also ensure the schools’ active participation and coordination with the team regarding participants, food, and accommodation.

But what warms the team’s hearts most are the efforts of teachers and other school staff and officials. They always manage to make road trips special. Even with minimal resources, they try to make the team comfortable and the event extraordinary.

In Anilao, the teachers prepared the opening program, even decorating the stage with miniature planets to honor Dr. Josette Biyo’s achievement. In Barotac Viejo, the teachers personally prepared meals for the team.

The facilitators, of course, are the highlight of nuLab. And while they are the “stars” of the sessions, they never fail to shine their light on the students.

Dr. Vallerie Samson of the DOST-Philippine Nuclear Research Institute did not only enlighten participants on the applications of nuclear science to health, food, and safety. She also encouraged students not to let poverty dishearten them.

During a special session for teachers, she told teachers that they are instrumental in the success of their students.

Dr. Samson, who studied in public schools since elementary, shared that her teacher discovered her talent in science and inspired her to take a science course and apply for a DOST scholarship. The scholarship enabled her to continue her studies and finish Physics at the University of the Philippines.

QUEZON, BICOL, MINDANAO

While road trips may be halted again because of the pandemic, the nuLab team remains undeterred. For the second half of 2022, the bus is slated to travel to Quezon province and coastal areas in the Bicol region.

For 2023, nuLab will sail to Mindanao to visit schools in fourth and fifth-class municipalities in Surigao, Agusan, Zamboanga, and Davao Oriental.

Its offshoot project, TuklaSiyensya, will also release more episodes. TuklaSiyensya transposes nuLab’s modules into video lessons. To date, 15 episodes have been produced.

SEI hopes that more students like Venturanza and Rodriguez will turn their nuLab experience as the starting point of a fulfilling science career, hence the constant effort in improving the project.

“We’re working on expanding modules to include health sciences, chemistry, programming, and other fields, as well as having more facilitators and upgrading and integrating the facilities,” Ilaw shared.

There is still a long road ahead before we can confidently say the Philippines has enough science professionals to steer the country to economic development, but the DOST-SEI is optimistic that we will get there, one road trip at a time.

The DOST-SEI invites Filipino scientists to join SciEx and nuLab as facilitators. Schools may also send inquiries and road trip requests to science.explorer@sei.dost.gov.ph.

Lovely Barba-Aquino, DOST-SEI
Lovely Barba-Aquino is a BA Film graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman. She works at the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) where she writes and edits content for speeches, articles, magazines, and books.

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