A Class Of Their Own: Education and the ecosystem

In this series, NUS News profiles the outstanding educators who have inspired generations of students at the University.

Mr N. Sivasothi, or “Otterman”, the moniker he adopted early on in his career to relate and educate, is an educator whose teaching is inextricable from his environmental advocacy. The two, in his own words, exist in an “ecosystem” in which every element “feeds into another”. For Mr Sivasothi, academia does not end in theory, and education is unconstrained by classroom time.

While these ideas may resonate with many educators, Mr Sivasothi’s efforts towards their fulfillment have resulted in a particularly integrated and relational approach to education. He wears many hats - Mr Sivasothi is a Senior Lecturer at NUS Biological Sciences, teaching ecology, biodiversity, and animal behaviour; the Director of Studies at Ridge View Residential College; Coordinator of the conservation and outreach group NUS Toddycats; and in various capacities involved in a plethora of other environmental advocacy organizations and events.

Mr. Sivasothi’s work in the classroom is simultaneously informed by and contributes to his environmental advocacy. In lectures, he teaches students of Singapore’s environment, which he knows intimately from personal research and the guided tours he leads in his activism. To ground students’ appreciation of what they are studying, he teaches not only the scientific knowledge he has accumulated, but how this scientific knowledge is used to protect the natural environments— for example, consultation with urban developers considering the clearing of forested areas in Singapore. He enables students, in turn, to put their research to work, actively attempting to get students’ work published when possible, and bringing it to working groups and engagements with LTA, PUB, URA, MINDEF, and NParks and private developers. He organizes an opportunity for each of his honours thesis supervisees to give a public talk on their research as practical training in science communication.

One former student who speaks glowingly of Mr. Sivasothi’s efforts as an educator is Ms Fung Tze Kwan, a former Honours and Masters student of his, who now works as a Research Associate at NUS Biological Sciences. She recounts how Mr Sivasothi’s guidance has helped her in her journey as an academic and publicly-visible environmentalist: it began with “freaking out” after Mr. Sivasothi arranged for her to give a 2011 talk before eight hundred secondary school students from her alma mater. But that experience built her confidence. She has since continued to give over twenty talks at various levels, including a presentation of her MSc research at Conservation Asia 2016, which won the Best Student Oral Presentation Award. Now, she remains in contact with Mr Sivasothi, occasionally consulting him on her presentations, and frequently working with him as a fellow activist and mentor to youth.

“Mr Sivasothi continues to amaze and inspire me greatly with the energy, effort, and heart he put into conservation and teaching,” she shares.

Many other students share a similar appreciation for Mr Sivasothi, who has bagged numerous teaching awards over the years at both the Faculty and University level and is in the Honour Roll for the Faculty Teaching Excellence Award from NUS Science and the University-wide Annual Teaching Exellence Award.

And yet, he himself was deeply influenced by earlier generations of educators at the former NUS Department of Zoology, chief among them Professor Dennis Hugh "Paddy" Murphy and Dr Jon Baldur Sigurdsson. Prof Murphy passed on last year, while Dr Sigurdsson passed away in 2015.

The two gentlemen spent long afternoons at the corridor at Block S2, the old Department of Zoology. The invaluable corridor conversations there inspired a young and enthusiastic Mr Sivasothi.

“They were great teachers to many generations of undergraduates. We would not have seen the likes of them today. They both also introduced me to Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat which I continued to work at and which Singapore newly conserved in 2018,” says Mr Sivasothi.

It is a self-sustaining ecosystem with each generation passing on knowledge, energy and passion to the next.

Working for the welfare of students

It is important to clarify at this point that Mr Sivasothi’s integration of activism and teaching in NUS is not about a happy merger of professional duties, or a pursuit of recognition. Behind every activity or class he leads lies a sincere and deep concern for the welfare and development of his students. When he speaks of his approach to teaching, it becomes quickly apparent that his pedagogy is a reflective one which involves constantly asking himself many student-centric questions. Among these are how he can prepare his students to survive and thrive not just in NUS but in their future workplace, how he can help them with their studies now, how he can help make them comfortable in their learning environment, and how he can help them find meaning in their work.

“What are they like?” he ruminates. “How do their backgrounds differ (from my own)? How do I make it personable? Are they learning at a pace suitable for their background?” This constant frank and detailed inquiry has resulted in a whole host of inventive strategies which often bridge his activism and his teaching in a synergistic manner. Amidst this questioning, several overarching guiding principles have emerged.

Philosophy of education

His first principle is a firm belief in the utility of the scientific method to solve varied problems, and subsequently, the importance of equipping students with it. For him, the scientific method is not only a method for understanding the natural world, but fundamentally a “problem solving tool”, which enables students who have been equipped with it to “work their way out” of “unprogrammed situations”. His lessons are designed to encourage students to think about their own thinking. He recounts, as an example, a rather amusing lesson from an ecology class in which he asked students where they would sell cupcakes in the west of Singapore. This led them to ask questions until they could formulate their strategy, in the process learning how to ask questions of quantification, distribution, competition, data collection, and so on.

Learning about nature, in nature

Linked to this is the belief that education should be conducted, as much as possible, in the real world, the ultimate “unprogrammed situation”. For the case of a naturalist, this real world would be the swamps, forests and other habits across the island. Mr Sivasothi mobilizes his organisational and pedagogical experience to enable out-of-classroom activities for his students, a strategy that has seen particular utility in this particularly challenging COVID-19 season. Recently, he adapted the deployment procedures from a mangrove cleanup he organised as coordinator of the International Coastal Cleanup, Singapore, to enable students to conduct a decentralized and remotely-coordinated avifauna survey in Pulau Ubin.

Another principle that Mr. Sivasothi repeatedly stresses is the importance of community. He actively attempts to enable students to become “aware of the environment and the people around them, who will be the building blocks for their support system in future.” He recalls benefitting from informal conversations with teachers and practitioners outside of the classroom, and recounts how his peers and former students have over time formed an environmentally-conscious network spanning multiple industries. In class, his conviction manifests in randomising groups, quizzing students about their classmates, encouraging discussions and collaborative learning in flipped classrooms, and even personally studying stand-up comedy routines in order to learn how to get students to loosen up, speak up, and get personally involved. Mr. Sivasothi believes that education is not something that functions in isolation. “We need community development within the University”, he insists. “We need to find some time so that we can breathe and have a conversation”.

In his activism, Mr. Sivasothi has found the same principle of community essential for the longevity and growth of any organized effort— the continued activity of The Habitat Group he started with a few others in 1996 as a Masters student in NUS and its subsequent transformation into the NUS Toddycats is a clear example, as are his current contemplations about the possibilities of getting neighbourhoods who live near parks and nature reserves involved in biodiversity protection.

If all this sounds a bit complicated, it is because it is. But it is a beautiful form of complexity, resting on inspiration from previous generations, firm guiding principles and a lot of hard work. The ecosystem metaphor, introduced by Mr. Sivasothi himself to describe his work, is apt. It is an encouragement to consider the possibilities of seeing education as a series of relationships, as he does.



This is the fourth instalment of a series on outstanding educators at NUS.

Read about how Professor Seah Kar Heng from the NUS Faculty of Engineering utilises creative methods to engage his students – all with the goal of teaching them to learn for themselves.

Read about how Associate Professor Kelvin Foong from the NUS Faculty of Dentistry combines good old-fashioned mentorship with the latest technological innovations, all to help students learn better.

Read about Dr Susan Ang Wan-Ling from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as she shares her experiences teaching English Literature, and her hopes and dreams for students as they move through life.