SCHOOLS must cultivate a spirit of research, innovation and enterprise in students when they are young, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

This, he said, will allow the economy to stay competitive. "Our ability to stay at the forefront and use the knowledge of science and technology to innovate new enterprises will be a key part of our plan going forward."

Science teachers have been moving towards an inquiry-based approach of teaching, he added.

But he hopes they can go one step further to help students "pull together different strands of knowledge to solve practical real-world problems".

He was speaking at the Singapore Science and Engineering Fair, a competition organised by the Education Ministry, Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and Science Centre Singapore.

Students present their projects at the fair and the best ones will represent Singapore at the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

The Singapore fair is now in its 15th year, and to celebrate the milestone, 10 teachers were recognised for mentoring their students in research projects. Among them was Mrs Sow-Peh Yoke Keow, 43, who coordinates the science research programme in Hwa Chong Institution.

"Students sometimes have very big ideas, like curing cancer. I have to guide them to start small," she said. "It is very rewarding when I see them grow, improve and achieve."

The student project she mentored was one of six chosen to represent Singapore in Pittsburgh, United States, in May for the international competition.

Her students - Benjamin Tan, Lim Zheng Theng and Tan Yi Zhao, all aged 17 - are working on using silver nano particles to kill off bacteria that grow on the membrane used in filtering reclaimed water, such as Newater.

"Newater is from dirty water so bacteria will accumulate on the membrane's surface over time, creating a layer of slime that clogs the membrane," said Benjamin.

"We found that silver nano particles can kill bacteria. If we embed them into the membrane, it decreases the bacteria by up to 93 per cent."