PETALING JAYA: Tucked away in a forest in Perak is an unassuming science classroom that has been transformed into a flight simulator by an educator passionate about bringing the experience to his students.
Shawn Stanly Anthony Dass started as an international relations undergraduate at Universiti Sabah Malaysia, but found his calling as an educator.
While waiting for the results of his university degree course, Shawn, as he prefers to be known, enrolled in a fellowship programme with Teach for Malaysia, a non-profit organisation dedicated to tackling education inequity.
“I just wanted to make some extra pocket money while waiting for my university results, but little did I know it would turn out to be something I am passionate about.”
The 26-year-old’s resolve for teaching was strengthened during his time studying in Sabah, when he came across children selling plastic bags.
He later found out that they were stateless and therefore, were unable to attend school.
From that point onwards, he decided to dedicate his efforts to teaching and tutoring students from marginalised and underprivileged communities.
“While I was tutoring this group of students, it made me realise that there were still prevalent gaps in our education system.
“That made me want to do more. Where else can you do more than in a classroom as a teacher?”
Through the initiative, he was assigned to SK RPS Banun near Gerik, situated amid 18 Orang Asli villages deep in the forests of Perak.
Building the flight simulator
The idea for the flight simulator occurred to Shawn after a curious student asked about his university days in Sabah, and how he managed to travel to the state in the first place.
“If I were rich, I would buy my own private plane and give them rides, but I couldn’t do that. So it got me thinking: let’s build an aircraft for my students to experience what it’s like to go on a plane or see one up close.
“I kept thinking about it for a couple of days. And then I was like, you know what, let’s just do it,” he said.
Being stationed in the middle of the forest, resources for a flight simulator were naturally hard to come by. After trawling social media for inspiration, Shawn got to work with the help of some of his students.
“A few secondary school students and I went into the forest to chop some bamboo to make the foundation for the base of the aircraft.
“I went around school collecting unused boxes from teachers. I went from class to class and also to the staffroom to ask if anyone had any empty boxes.”
Within a few days, a regular science classroom was transformed into the cockpit and fuselage of the newly christened “Air Banun”. Shawn himself was dressed for the part, donning the classic black-and-white attire of a pilot.
With the projector serving as the aircraft’s window, the students sat in awe as they were transported to far-flung lands, from the deserts of Egypt to the volcanoes of Indonesia.
“It makes me think that in the classroom, we can do a lot of things as educators. Though some realities may be distant for our children, we can bring these realities to the children in our classrooms.
“The classroom is a magical place where there are infinite possibilities and realities that can take place or be created.”
The future of education
The hands-on learning did not just end there, as Shawn has gone on to create other simulations to fully immerse his students in his lessons.
Shawn, who is from Penang, went to great lengths, even bringing buckets and bags of seawater and sand from his home state to give the kids a genuine beach experience.
He went as far as to craft a cardboard turtle with a straw in its nose to illustrate the consequences of littering.
For Shawn, these simulations are not just memorable activities for students; they represent a necessary and creative solution to illiteracy, a problem that plagues rural schools like SK RPS Banun.
“Imagine going to a class where two out of 80 students are literate, who have basic reading and writing abilities.
“But the majority of them don’t, so how do you teach content from textbooks to a class that can’t even read?”
He stresses a trial-and-error approach, emphasising that he does not apply a one-size-fits-all model for every class. Unlike many educators, Shawn happily welcomes student feedback to make sure they get the most out of their lessons.
Through his time as a Teach for Malaysia fellow, he hopes to bust myths and dispel prejudices that certain children are unable to learn, stressing rather that they simply are not given the same opportunities and access to tools.
Shawn hopes that experiences like these would help inspire individuals to send ripples through their communities, as educators have done for him.
“Today, I’m so driven to do the same for my students and I hope that one day, no matter what professions my students have, they will be an inspiration to others and do good as well.”