A catalyst for change: improving science education across the entire school

Issue: Volume 95, Number 13

Posted: 25 July 2016
Reference #: 1H9d2p

The Science Teaching Leadership Programme strives to increase student engagement in science by upskilling teachers. Education Gazette meets teachers from two schools who explain how the programme is enriching STEM learning within their school community.

A programme that gives teachers time and space to immerse themselves in the world of science is improving the way the subject is taught in both primary and secondary schools.

The Science Teaching Leadership Programme (STLP) aims to increase student engagement and achievement in science by upskilling and inspiring their teachers in the subject.

The programme is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The STLP is one of several initiatives under the Curious Minds programme which aims to encourage and enable better engagement with science and technology.

With a strong focus on the whole school or science department, the STLP requires an ongoing commitment from the participating school to prioritise science as a key professional learning and development area.

How does it work?

Schools nominate a teacher of year 1–10 students who they believe has the capacity and confidence to take a leadership role in science.

Participant teachers develop their curriculum leadership skills in science, support their colleagues in understanding the Nature of Science, and forge links with science organisations in their communities.

There are two phases to the programme. Participant teachers take paid leave from their school during phase one.

Over two school terms, these teachers gain a deeper understanding of the Nature of Science by undertaking a work placement in a scientific organisation.

By joining workshops and online discussions, the teachers draw on their placement experiences to expand their understanding of science in The New Zealand Curriculum. These sessions help maintain the focus on school and education.

The participants also explore their leadership capacity by focusing on their personal growth and development.

Phase two takes place back at school, where the participant teachers bring their new knowledge and skills to work together to improve science teaching and student learning.

There are two application rounds each year for the programme. Schools can prioritise their preferences for phase one start times – either term 1 or term 3.

Tauranga Girls’ College: a spiral of learning

Tauranga Girls’ College biology teacher Richard Hendra spent the second half of 2015 working alongside scientists at Plant & Food Research in Te Puke.

A chemistry teacher from the school, Rachel Leckie, will also take part in the STLP in term 3.

HOD science Treena Blythe says the programme has inspired big changes in the science curriculum offered by the school.

“We’ve changed our year 9 programme quite significantly, and we hope that next year we will extend these changes to year 10 as well,” she says.

“Our first goal was to improve engagement – we wanted it to be really relevant and as centred on the real world as it could be”

In doing this, Treena says the course has been divided into four broad concepts, the first being science investigation.

“This is a big Nature of Science push – understanding how science knowledge is gained, and carrying out investigations of our ideas.”

Term 2’s focus is on forensics, and solving mysterious cases as though the students are police scientists. Treena says this relates to the learning that has happened in term 1, and engagement levels are palpable.

“It used to be a unit called ‘separating mixtures’, but now we call it ‘drug bust’ – some of the students even think we’ve been contracted by customs to work our hypothetical cases out,” she laughs.

Science and the media is set down for term 3, which will involve analysis of science articles in print and online contexts as well as in popular films, and in term 4 the course will have a technology focus.

“Part of Richard’s work since he returned from his placement has been to gather data about how the students are engaging with the science curriculum, and how this is changing over time,” she says.

Treena notes that she and her fellow teachers are conscious that engagement doesn’t necessarily relate to better learning outcomes.

“Another aim of ours is to carefully ensure that the increase in engagement levels is actually linked to student learning, but of course as scientists we are well aware that this is hard to measure,” she says.

Treena says the beauty of the STLP is the time it allows teachers to make considered changes.

“When you’re teaching full-time, there are so many little things that you have to do – whether it’s marking, or day to day preparation."

“This programme makes it possible for someone to sit back and reflect on what we’re doing in a big-picture way. It’s enabled us to make a change that we really wanted to make.”

Principal Pauline Cowens believes the greatest strength of the STLP is the ability to connect the science learning happening at school, with science happening outside the school.

“For me, this programme allows teachers the opportunity to reconnect with real-life science, and allows them to explore industry links, and bring a sense of inquiry back with them,” she says.

Pauline is also appreciative that two Tauranga Girls’ teachers can take part in the programme.

“Once the first teacher comes back and starts to make the changes, another teacher will go too, so I see it as a spiral of learning – both for the teachers and the students,” she says.

“It’s not just a one-off thing, but rather an ongoing programme of change within the school."

“Also, because Richard teaches biology, and Rachel is a chemistry specialist, this will give us a wider effect because it reaches across the science curriculum.”

Pauline notes that the benefits from the programme are not limited to the science department, but rather seem to spread out across the school like an infusion.

“A lot of things that come to the interface of a school are one-offs, and it can be hard to leverage off one separate event or programme,” she says.

“But having the amount of time and experience that comes with the STLP is different."

“It means that the energy and enthusiasm of the teacher who returns infuses through to others in the school."

“Another thing that I’ve noticed is that it can awaken change in other teachers. Someone going out and having this amazing professional development seems to lift the aspirations of all of us – it’s inspiring.” 

Bees, wasps and ants were some of the social insects studied by Koraunui School teacher Dianne Christenson alongside scientists

A flourishing environment at Koranui School

From bees to trees, the STLP is helping science learning thrive at Koraunui School in Stokes Valley.

Principal Barbara Hay says she and her staff identified a need to lift student motivation and interest across all learning areas, but especially science.

“We knew that student engagement needed a boost at Koraunui School,” she says.

“We also knew that the vast majority of our students are hands-on learners. We’d spent many years focusing on literacy and numeracy, and that perhaps the other learning areas weren’t getting as much air.”

Barbara says that when she became aware of the STLP programme, everyone at the school agreed it was too good an opportunity to miss.

“It’s something we really wanted for our students – to kick off that interest and curiosity about the world around them."

“Science is clearly a learning area that requires some intensive approaches – and it has to start at primary level.”

Koraunui School teacher Dianne Christenson spent phase one of the programme at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences, where she worked alongside scientists studying social insects including bees, wasps and ants.

A second teacher from the school, Diana Manks, is also taking part in the STLP and is based in the geophysics department at Victoria University of Wellington.

Part of Dianne’s study involved working with a group of beekeepers in Gisborne, investigating the causes of a number of hive deaths and gathering data about the results.

Upon her return to school, Dianne brought a fresh enthusiasm for all things scientific, and collaborated with her fellow teachers Liz Raimona and Maria Joe to establish a thriving Enviroschools programme.

This involved designing and building a shed with students, revitalising the school community gardens and with the help of Luana Leuluai, developing a taro patch.

Dianne also brought bees.

“One of the fantastic things that happened at school when Dianne returned was that she worked with the students to introduce bees to our school grounds,” says Barbara.

“It started with a baseline study of the school environment, including a survey of the grounds for pollinators."

“Together with her guidance, the students built the hives and now help take care of the bees. Part of the project also involves introducing insect-friendly plants and fruit trees to our grounds.”

There has been a wealth of scientific activity happening at Koraunui since then, including a bush builders initiative, water monitoring, visits to the local zoo and marine reserve, and teacher sessions at The Mind Lab.

Next on the agenda, with support from Dianne Christenson, is a project to build a greenhouse from recycled bottles. The school also plans to work with Whitebait Connection to propagate habitats for inanga and with Zealandia ecosanctuary, to identify and trap pests in the school and local community.

“Having two of our teachers participating in STLP placements has consolidated the effectiveness of the programme back at school,” says Barbara.

Diana Manks’s work in geophysics at Victoria University has led to Koraunui’s imminent participation in the Rū Seismometers in Schools network.

“This enhances our teaching of the Physical World strand of the curriculum, and of course has great relevance to the recent swarm of earthquakes in the Wellington region,” she says.

Barbara also acknowledges the Hutt City Council, which has been working hard through a variety of initiatives to support STEM learning in the region.

“We’ve been teaching literacy and numeracy through science, it’s been a raging success. We’re lucky that we’re close to Wellington, which has a wealth of these opportunities – they’re out there for the picking.”

She encourages other schools to take the opportunity to apply for the programme.

“I would totally and utterly recommend it to other schools."

“It’s a busy sabbatical – but it does get teachers away from the daily grind of the classroom and gives them time to think about why they became a teacher in the first place. They come back completely refreshed.”

Staff meetings at Koraunui now include a dedicated ‘science slot’ every fortnight.

“Science is hugely enjoyable – for both teachers and students,” she says.

“What we’re getting is the cumulative effect of all of our teaching staff upskilling. The students are feeling empowered by using science to understand and change the world around them."

“You can feel the excitement coming off the children as they do science in class – it’s been a catalyst for change in our school.”

For more details about the Science Teaching Leadership Programme, visit the Royal Society website(external link)

Applications are open for schools wanting to begin phase one of the programme in either term 1 2017 or term 3 2017 (this start date is subject to government funding).

Applications for this round will close on Thursday 8 September 2016.

BY Melissa Wastney
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 8:11 pm, 25 July 2016

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