An Interview with Mathini Segar

Mathini Segar is currently an adjunct professor and consultant at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Science. She holds a degree in Chemistry and Life Sciences from NUS, a postgraduate diploma from the National Institute of Education (NIE), and has been a curriculum developer and an established author for over 10 years.

She is the author of the “Science Olympiad Primary 3 & 4 / 5 & 6 Guide and Practice Books”. Through teaching science in a captivating and enjoyable way, this series hopes that students can gain a passion for science and choose to pursue more science-related careers in the future.

In line with the syllabus issued by the Ministry of Education (MOE) Singapore, Olympiad questions involve critical thinking and problem-solving by picking out hidden hints. Olympiad questions pose an additional challenge by requiring students to read between the lines to determine what the question is asking for.

These challenges include inference-based questions where students need to infer trends from diagrams, graphs or tables, and predict what would happen if factors are changed.

Application-based questions teach students how the science concepts they learn can be employed in their everyday lives. They also expose students to new inventions.

Interesting science facts and questions beyond the syllabus are also included for additional knowledge.

In today’s post, Mathini shares with us more about how students can tackle difficult questions in Science, and about the real-life applications of Science that are often overlooked.

About the books: Science Olympiad Primary 3 & 4 / 5 & 6 Guide and Practice Book

Science Olympiad Guide and Practice Books, by Mathini Segar

1. How will these books help students become more interested in Science?

The Olympiad books provide real-life examples and application questions to engage students, help them understand the reason behind these science concepts and to help them enjoy learning science.

2. Can you share an example of a hidden hint found in examination questions?

Hints can be found in the images, tables and/or text provided by the question.

For example, if there is a diagram of a heart and the question were to ask the student to explain why the left side of the heart transports oxygen-rich blood, the answer should be inferred with reference to the image – the left side of the heart is thicker than the right side. The blood flow in the left side of the heart is faster than the right side as our body cells are “hungry” for oxygen.

3. How can students become better at critical thinking?

They have to practise more. Students should analyse facts critically and “stare” at questions for a slightly longer time before answering them.

4. Is there a ‘best method’ for effectively understanding examination questions?

Every student views each question using a different “lens”. There is no best method, but my advice to students would be to understand exactly what the question wants first.

5. How can students improve their inference skills?

They should be more patient and critical. They have to learn how to observe patterns, trends and equations.

6. Can you share a good problem-solving skill that students should develop?

Students have to learn how to first identify keywords, and then comprehend what the question is asking for. For example, there is a difference between “why something works” and “how something works”. They have to determine what the question is testing them on.

Students should write down equations and anything related to the topic, before answering the question to the best of their ability.

7. Are there any science concepts that are applicable to everyday life which students do not notice?

Students are not aware of the applications of many science concepts taught in school. Many students are not able to relate the concepts to real-life applications.

8. Lastly, what is the number one takeaway that you wish for students to have from this series of guide books?

The aim of these books is to instil a passion for gaining and applying new science knowledge. It is better not to blindly memorise content, but to appreciate and understand the world of science as a whole.

About Yourself/Work/Expertise

Author Mathini Segar, B.Sc. (Chemistry and Life Sciences), PGDE

1. Why did you choose to pursue a degree in Chemistry and Life Sciences?

My passion for the sciences started from young. When I started on my Bachelor’s degree in 2003, Life Sciences was a “trendy” subject back then. I researched further and realised that Chemistry offered many more career opportunities as it is linked to both Life Sciences and Physical Science. Hence, I majored in Chemistry and minored in Life Sciences.

2. Can you share some interesting facts on how Chemistry and Life Sciences directly impact a person’s everyday life?

Many everyday things that we never really notice are a result of Chemistry at work. Like the structure of the different clothes material that we wear, the acidic nature of fruits, the basic nature of the soap that we use when showering and washing dishes, etc.

On the other hand, the interaction between nutrients found in food such as carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals and the digestive juices are a part of Life Sciences. The study of our reaction to stressful situations due to the hormones produced are also part of Life Sciences.

3. As an author for 10 years, what are some of the interesting changes in the Science curriculum that you have observed?

The content in the curriculum has been reduced over the years and the focus has shifted to linking concepts to real-life applications.

4. How will you motivate or encourage a student to be interested in Science?

The main secret to excel in any subject, including science, is to enjoy learning it or to find a way to like it.

5. What are some of the common challenges facing Science students today?

Students tend to blindly memorise concepts and do not comprehend the question. The lack of comprehension leads them to haphazardly or erroneously use “keywords”, even when the keywords do not answer the question.

6. How can they address such challenges?

A focus on critical thinking and understanding, instead of “blindly” memorising concepts, is the key to addressing such challenges.

Drawing a mind map, or utilising other ways to pique the student’s interest and trigger more questions, is helpful. Students naturally score better when they are interested.

7. What advice would you give to students who are transitioning from primary to secondary school level Science?

Primary school science is a stepping stone to secondary school science. It is an exponential jump, but do not panic just because there are 3 sciences – Physics, Chemistry and Biology –  in secondary school.

Learn to enjoy the process of learning the sciences, and cross the bridge from primary to secondary sciences confidently!

8. Having authored books for a decade, what is the number one piece of advice you want to give to Science students?

Never give up, strive to excel and try your best in everything you do! Enjoy the learning journey to excel in Olympiad Science!