Science in a secondary state school - Education Matters Magazine

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Science in a secondary state school

Science is an integral component for a progressive, creative and innovative nation, and we need to engage students early with science to provide them with extensive opportunities to experience, engage, problem solve and ‘get to know’ science, writes Sarah Chapman.

When visiting Townsville State High School, you soon become aware of the importance of science in the school. Many students have particularly chosen this school over the local catholic and private counterparts because of the science programs run at this school. Many visitors, whether they be; the Prime Minister, Federal Members of Parliament, State Science Ministers or teachers from other local schools, want to know the secret formula to the great science reputation that Town High has.

Well there is no easy answer to this question, however I will outline some things that makes this science department and school so great.

The school

When looking more closely you cannot pinpoint a singular entity, you need to look big picture and then examine more in depth, in order to best understand where this school stands apart. Town High has a unique ethos or set of beliefs which supports a school wide feeling of family and support. The school has a strong sense of community, togetherness and staff support is more than evident. Staff here go above and beyond, they really care for each other and the students they teach. Examining the big picture, the school is the place to start. The people in the school, each and every staff member, make it a very enjoyable place to work.

Science staff

Town High does have an excellent Science Department. I am very fortunate to be a part of a fantastic school and team of exceptional teachers. The staff within the Science Department are exceptional! In terms of the greatest strength of the department, my staff are the greatest strength.

Passion

The science staff at Town High have a great deal of passion and commitment for their profession. They go above and beyond for their students by consistently improving the learning experiences, resources and support they provide. Going the extra mile to provide hands-on experiences for our students, providing lunch time and after school support, connecting science to the cutting edge are just some of the things the science staff do at Town High. The staff are passionate about the team they work with and collaboration is second nature in our department. Staff are always sharing their ideas and contributing innovative ways of doing things and supporting each other.

Specialist knowledge

The majority of staff in the Science Department have specialist knowledge in their area of teaching, with many having a specialist Science Degree or additional science training as a part of their education studies. This specialist knowledge assists in the development and extension of quality programs by ensuring high standards are set and the science is both relevant and challenging. Having specialist knowledge promotes student engagement by being able to provide multiple scientific perspectives and experiences to assist a student in the development and consolidation of their understanding on a particular topic.

Having these specialist skills also supports the teaching beliefs that are very strong within the Science Department. We are all strong believers that we are not just teaching science, we are teaching our students to be scientists. With this ethos in mind all collaboration and sharing is aimed to uphold and sustain hands-on learning experiences for our students.

Innovation, creativity and collaboration

The staff are encouraged to be innovative and creative in their teaching. Using their depth of knowledge and collaborating new ideas, staff are not locked into traditional ways of teaching science. A great team and strong beliefs to promote quality science goes a long way to ensuring that both the students and teachers enjoy the learning experiences. Staff include the Scientific Assistant in their discussions in order to further extend the ideas, planning and collaboration of the team. The Scientific Assistant is a strong part of our team, she provides teachers with a range of support and ideas in our collaborative, planning and teaching processes.

Having intelligent and passionate people as a part of a Science Department provides a constant stream of ideas and conversation. There are always people there to challenge your ideas and practise. This makes work dynamic both in a professional sense and in the classroom. As a teacher you are always trying to improve what you do and how you do it. Being in an environment with people that are all challenging each other really stimulates growth and investment in your profession.

Extracurricular

The passion and love for science and teaching also extends beyond the classroom for the Science Department. Our department provides a range of extracurricular experiences and support for students at our school. This is certainly something that sets us apart. We have an after school Science Club where students can design and conduct scientific investigations in areas of science that interest them. This club is made up of students from both Junior and Senior Secondary and they support each other through the investigative process. We also are providing science homework help after school and a lunch time Robotics Club. Staff have also taken students on their own weekends to places around our region to engage in activities from learning about flight and getting to fly a glider, to participating in local science festivals. Involvement of community members and scientists from local research organisations (through the CSIRO Scientists in Schools Program) are also key dimensions in deepening the learning experiences for our students. The links we have with external specialists are highly-valued and truly enhance our teaching and learning programs.

Staff in the Science Department also embrace a range of extracurricular activities during National Science Week. This is a week where staff go above and beyond, everyone pitches in. This is a week where the Science Department gets to engage students, staff and community in a range of science activities. We have had professional molecular gastronomists working with our students, an artist in residence collaborating with students to express what Science means to them, we have even attempted a Guinness World Record. All activities aimed to promote and engage students, non-science staff and the community in science. This is an important week to share how fascinatingly brilliant science is!

Challenges

With such a strong team ethos, at times where there may be challenges (either in or out of the classroom or personal), teachers are always supporting each other and pitching in. In 2014 our Science Department unusually lost a number of staff to promotion or retirement and 2015 has seen five new teachers join. This has proven to be very challenging on the team and myself as the Head of Department. For a team that is very strong and works together effectively, having a significant increase in numbers has put strain on the Department. Staffing changes are always a weakness, as change can come with its challenges. Change in staff can also be a strength to bring in new perspectives. The collaborative nature of our Science Department has proven to be an inspiration and guiding force for our new teachers.  They see how the established team work and share ideas, and this assists in building the capacity of our new teachers too.

Resourcing can also be a weakness in any Science Department. To provide innovative and hands-on programs does require substantial resources. Limits in resourcing can influence teachers to be creative in how they develop resources, however at times it can also limit what can be provided for students. Resourcing for staff professional development can also be challenging at times, however the school administration is optimally supportive of the range of professional development initiatives that the Science Department has accessed.

Meeting the curriculum and assessment requirements, completing risk assessment documentation, complying with ethical standards and State Government requirements can present a myriad of challenges for the Science Department. Staying abreast of the legal and ethical requirements in order to conduct a safe and professional workplace can also be challenging when time is a certain limiting factor. Input from experienced staff, the Scientific Assistant and I all helps to ensure things are maintained to a high standard.

Results

As a result of the hard work and commitment of the Science Department, teachers have a good rapport with their students. As the staff have strong collegial bonds, this flows on to reinforce a family feeling amongst the students. Some student will return to visit the teachers and school over a decade after their graduation, highlighting the strong bond formed when they attended the school. Along with the relationships, the academic results for students studying science at Town High also reflect the strength of the Science Department. On average our pass rates for students studying senior science sits above 90%. Between 85% and 90% of our students choosing a tertiary education pathway after school choose a science related area of study.

Dynamic environment requires dynamic staff

Science is a dynamic subject that questions and tests in the pursuit for truth. A Science Department needs to reflect the elements of science by also being dynamic and evolving with the needs of the students and the multiple dimensions of science. Like the scientists that research and study science, the environment they work in needs to be collaborative and diverse, this too should be reflected in the staff of your Science Department.

Overall, after this reflection it is for certain that I am very fortunate to be a part of a fantastic team of science teachers. I thoroughly enjoy my job as the Head of Department and a teacher at Town High and this can certainly be attributed to the team of great people I work with. The supportive and family nature of the whole school staff also brings pride and enjoyment for what I do. It is humbling to be a part of a Science Department that is so passionate and inspires the scientists of tomorrow.

Vision and hope for science education in Australia

Science is an integral component for a progressive, creative and innovative nation. For Australia to best address the many challenges that our economy and Earth face, we need the most talented and dynamic scientists we have ever fashioned.

To grow this exceptional knowledge currency, we need to engage students early with science, and provide them with extensive opportunities to experience, engage, problem solve and ‘get to know’ science. Students need to build on their natural sense of wonder and have the opportunity to question and test the world around them. Opportunities need to be provided at primary school to engage with specialist teachers that are passionate about science. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) should be a central component of learning.

Science should be more STEM-based in secondary school and would include more learning time devoted to allow students to consolidate a deeper understanding and broaden their experiences with the science they learn. There should be extensive hands-on experiences and problem-based learning experiences, to develop students’ thought processes, to skill them to persevere and work through problems, and to be creative and innovative. To see that science is ‘messy’ and to develop their own passion for finding the truth in the things they know and see is a necessary experience for science students.

Science at secondary school should be seamless with university, where students interact with scientists as their mentors and engage with research, community and industrial scientific environments. There needs to be opportunities for students to collaborate with the ‘real’ scientific world and begin their life as a scientist before they walk out the gate from secondary school. This could provide more certain and clear pathways for students to see that science is a real, tangible, life and world-changing career.

The final piece in my vision is the teacher. It is necessary to have a passionate teacher that loves their subject, this can bridge the greatest of marginal divides and interest barriers, and go beyond comprehension at times to engage a student. As my staff certainly demonstrate passion, due to their love and in-depth knowledge for their subject areas, my vision would be to reflect this in the teaching profession. Teachers should have a stronger base to draw knowledge from, such as a specialist degree in their teaching area. This prerequisite combined with an internship model for teacher training, where there is a more immersive, supported and scaffolded environment for teacher development, would support teachers to develop their teaching skill base, depth of knowledge and passion for teaching and science.

My hopes and vision may seem utopic to some, however I believe with a united vision and the key goal to see science be a prominent force in everything from the student to schools, homes, community, states and our great nation, anything is possible.

 

Sarah Chapman, the Head of Department of Science at Townsville State High School, North Queensland, is in her twelfth year of teaching. Sarah has a passion for developing science programs that are innovative and engage students in becoming more involved in science, aware of their environment and actively involved in their community.

Sarah’s innovative programs and links with the community and James Cook University have inspired students to commence their life-long passion for science early. She also devotes her personal time to designing and delivering a range of innovative science professional development workshops in order to improve the standards of science teaching. This has led to her being invited to speak about her work at local, state, national and international professional workshops and conferences.

Sarah has received numerous recognitions for her science teaching, including the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools in 2013.

Sarah graduated from James Cook University with a Bachelor of Science with Honours Class 1 in 1998 and a Graduate Bachelor of Education in 2003.

 

Australian Science Teachers Association

Founded in 1951, the Australian Science Teachers Association is the federation of Science Teachers Associations from all Australian states and territories. It is the national professional association for teachers of science and a powerful voice influencing policy and practice in science education. Please visit www.asta.edu.au for more information.

 

 

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