A passion for environmental science nurtures young kaitiaki

Issue: Volume 101, Number 11

Posted: 31 August 2022
Reference #: 1HAVsZ

Prime Minister’s Te Puiaki Kaiwhakaaho Putaiao Science Teacher’s Prize winner Bianca Woyak has a passion for teaching environmental science, and it’s driven by a desire to prepare her students for a future where they can make a difference.

Bianca is passionate about using environmental education to engage ākonga.

Bianca is passionate about using environmental education to engage ākonga.

When Burnside Primary School principal Matt Bateman speaks about his school, he finds it hard to hide his pride and enthusiasm – and he has every good reason to feel proud.

One of the school’s kaiako, Bianca Woyak, recently won the Prime Minister’s Te Puiaki Kaiwhakaaho Putaiao Science Teacher’s Prize.

“It’s been great having Bianca here to put an ecological stamp on our programmes and the rich flavour that she’s brought,” says Matt.

“Her passion is infectious. Children have been able to leave here thinking about the environment, thinking about issues, and coming up with ways to take action and solve them.”

The award recognises Bianca’s inspiring work to engage students with science, on a wide range of local topics taught outside the classroom, encouraging them to embrace sustainability and to be kaitiaki in their community.

Her approach reflects the culture of the school.

“We have a carving in our foyer called Hine Taiao. The word Taiao means the environment. It celebrates the trees and the creatures, but it also celebrates relationships. The environment isn’t just about the trees and the creatures, it’s about everything else that’s around that as well,” says Matt.

Bianca facilitates student-led action projects that have a conservation community theme.

“We might study a particular topic in the beginning, but then the students decide what action to take and how to do it. Basically, I’m just the facilitator here to help them out so they can decide which direction they want to go in. It is really empowering for ākonga as they can then translate these skills to other issues that matter to them.”

The butterfly effect

One of the student-led projects is called B5 – Burnside Brings Back Boulder Butterfly. A few years ago, Bianca was teaching about insects, and students became fascinated with all things insect related.

Environmental education is suitable for all ages.

Environmental education is suitable for all ages.

Ākonga were curious to know what the endemic butterflies in Canterbury were. They found out that the boulder copper butterfly was only found in Canterbury but it’s now quite rare due to the destruction of their habitat.

“None of the students had ever seen them, and we thought that was sad. They decided they wanted to do something about this.”

Students decided to create an area in the school that replicated the boulder copper butterfly’s habitat.

The project involved visiting McLeans Island (near Christchurch airport) where some of the butterflies are still found. The students studied the habitat and observed the butterfly behaviour, with guidance from local butterfly expert Brian Patrick.

“We then built a test patch at our school just to see if we could bring butterflies to school and if they would be happy in that area. We had to get a whole lot of rocks donated because they like rocks to sun themselves on. Then we grew Muehlenbeckia axillaris which is pohuehue, because that’s their caterpillars’ host plant.”

A few months later they translocated some butterflies from McLeans Island and waited for results.

The butterfly population increased and with it also brought a new species of bird into the school for the first time – welcome swallows, who feed on them.

“We’re hoping to very shortly be helping Burnside High School scientifically name the butterfly and we’re working with tangata whenua to give it a Māori name as well.”

Other student-led projects are also underway. Students want to work on reducing school waste so have been investigating and studying solar power with the aim of getting solar panels on the school roofing.

Another project is to be able to introduce the Canterbury tree weta to the school as it used to live in the area. To achieve this, the school is working on reforesting the school to create a habitat for the weta. This has involved studying and working out which trees, such as manuka, are best suited in the habitat.

Bianca’s activities also include testing water from the local stream, riparian planting, flax weaving from harakeke growing on site, beekeeping, citizen science projects with iNaturalist, and bird studies including the annual Garden Bird Survey.

“We’re looking at what birds we have, and we’ve been trying to improve the amount of native birds here at school.”

Nature enhances wellbeing

As well as the educational benefits of environmental studies, Bianca explains there are other benefits – particularly with the opportunities for education outside the classroom.

“I think just getting tamariki outside in nature is a huge thing. We’re having lots of issues these days with stressed out kids, who are anxious with too much computer and screen time. So just getting them outside lowers their stress hormones. You can see the changes in their behaviour.

“Also, the kids that maybe didn’t flourish inside the classroom with reading, writing and maths, you get them outside and you can see their strengths and they feel confident. That’s why we’re reforesting our school and creating various places that students can feel connected to nature.”

This sentiment is shared by Thea DePetris, who has been an environmental educator for 17 years.

Thea enjoys being an environmental educator.

Thea enjoys being an environmental educator.

 “The research clearly shows that the benefits to a learner having nature-based experiences as part of their daily schooling routine is that they have increased concentration levels, they’re more engaged, they’re less stressed. In terms of personal outcomes, they’re more resilient and they’re more physically fit.”

Thea is currently undertaking a PhD at Waikato University, and as part of this, she has created a national database of environmental education organisations. That database is now incorporated in the New Zealand Association for Environmental Education (NZAEE) website.

“So it’s such a positive step that schools can now use that database to find local or regional or national support for their environmental education, teaching and learning.”

The second part of Thea’s PhD research is focused on the concept of nature-based education, and one aspect that has come through is how it helps students feel connected to their place.

Thea interviewed several environmental educators around the country and found many educators view nature-based education as “a means to help people understand their place in the world. How do they fit in with the natural environment? What is their relationship with the natural environment?”


Thea appreciates the work that Bianca does, as it helps to show teachers that environmental education can be integrated across learning, rather than an extra piece of work.

Bianca explains there are many ways that environmental science can be incorporated into student learning.

“You can teach basically all subjects through environmental science. Obviously, there is science, but we do lots of art, for example, we are currently doing a drawing unit using native leaves. Then there is writing about nature or learning maths by figuring out how many trees we need to plant or what size habitat to build.

“We can even do Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories because we’re looking at what was planted here before European settlement, what Māori did with certain plants. So, you can bring all curriculum areas into environmental science, which is great.”

Thea agrees, adding, “There’s much more emphasis on saying maybe this doesn’t need to be on top of everything, this can be integrated as part of everything we do, as part of all our disciplines.

“Sustainability and regenerative living can be part of every curriculum area and that’s really exciting.”

Students can learn about the importance of conservation.

Students can learn about the importance of conservation.

Advice for kaiako

Bianca works to engage students in a holistic and fun approach to environmental science.

For kaiako asking, “Where do I start with my environmental programme?” Bianca’s advice is to start small; start by doing one or two things in a year and then build on it.

“The big thing is learning local, look at what’s in your own backyard. There’s no point for us learning about the Amazon rainforest, when we could learn about our forest here in Aotearoa and the different landscapes and native areas that surround us. That is how you make it real for ākonga.

“I build relationships and we learn just as much outside as we do inside. Take your class outside. You have all the benefits of being out in nature and you will see the positive effects on your class.”

For kaiako wanting help developing their environment education, NZAEE can help. The association began in 1984 with a purpose to agitate for change, and to get more environmental education integrated into schools.

Recent funding through the Ministry of Education has enabled NZAEE to expand its operations. This includes the website that Thea has contributed to which has a vast database of environmental education resources.

Chris Montgomerie, executive officer for NZAEE, says they are collating and curating a lot of information about environmental education and constantly updating it.

“It’s become a bit of a one stop shop for teachers and environmental educators.”

One aspect of NZAEE’s work is creating networks, collections of people, who are working in similar areas. This allows environmental educators to connect, collaborate and bounce ideas off each other.

“Being an environmental educator or the person who’s got that environment spot in a school might be a lonely experience, so actually being able to collaborate with people from neighbouring schools and organisations is pretty important as well,” says Chris.

As well as having the website resources to help with this, educators will have an opportunity to meet with each other and gain valuable knowledge with the upcoming conference that NZAEE is holding in October.

For more information, visit nzaee.org.nz(external link).

Bianca, Brian and Matt in front of Hine Taiao.

Bianca, Brian and Matt in front of Hine Taiao.

Further reading and resources

The Science Teaching Leadership Programme(external link) provides opportunities for primary schools, secondary science departments and their nominated teachers to enhance the teaching of science within school communities – including environmental science.

The programme makes a real difference to students’ science learning by:

  • Enhancing science programmes to better engage students and develop their science knowledge and skills
  • Contributing to the professional learning and development of teachers
  • Building links between schools and practising scientists.

Running a science week

Running a science week(external link) provides opportunities to connect with your community including scientists, develop student capabilities, grow teacher confidence, and have a whole lot of fun.

Sciencelearn.org.nz(external link) also has a webinar to explore possible approaches to science week, sharing experiences of what has worked well and offering loads of engaging hands-on activity ideas.

This webinar will be valuable for early learning, primary, intermediate and junior secondary school teachers.

Education Outside the Classroom

Learning takes place everywhere. Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) has information and resources to support safe and effective curriculum-based teaching and learning that extends beyond the classroom walls.

For more information about best practice EOTC, including guidelines to bringing the curriculum alive, visit eotc.tki.org.nz(external link).

Education Gazette has published many articles in this space, showing a range of good practice in action across the motu. One of the many is Education outside the classroom expands horizons(external link) 

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

Posted: 11:22 am, 31 August 2022

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts