Eureka moments: Prime Minister’s Science Prizes 2015

Issue: Volume 95, Number 1

Posted: 25 January 2016
Reference #: 1H9cyc

The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes began in 2009, as a way of lifting the profile of science in New Zealand, and those who excel in the field. The winners for 2015, announced in November, included a student who has combined her love of science with an entrepreneurial knack, and a teacher who never fails to reveal the ‘magic’ of science in class.

2015 Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize winner: Tania Lineham, James Hargest College

Tania Lineham has been teaching for 25 years at Invercargill’s James Hargest College, and it’s safe to say that everyone there – past and present pupils as well as teachers – would agree she’s made a big impact.

Trying to isolate the reasons why Tania has made such an impression is difficult. The best we can probably do is examine a few examples.

A World Fraught With ‘Science’

Information today is constantly clamouring for our attention. One of the crucial skills 21st century teachers concentrate on nurturing in their students is the ability to think critically; a skill that’s now much more of a challenge to modern students than the simple retention of facts. Science is no different in this respect, says Tania.

“There is so much material out there that looks real but isn’t, especially on the internet. Part of my focus is on giving young people the tools they need to assess and analyse the wealth of scientific claims that are made to legitimise beliefs and products.

“It’s so easy to be ripped off – I don’t see how anyone can survive in the 21st century without some degree of scientific literacy.”

Tania’s ongoing legacy at James Hargest made her something of a shoo-in for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize. In fact, the college is already associated with the awards: former student Bailey Lovett won the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize in 2010 for research into water quality in the Riverton/Aparima area west of Invercargill. This speaks to the outstanding track record of James Hargest students achieving excellence in local and national awards, under Tania’s stewardship.

Ask any scientist out there making their mark, and chances are they’ll be able to recall the moment, the lesson, or the teacher who became the catalyst for their passion. Tania feels strongly that this passion is kindled in the next generation of game-changers when there is inter-generational conversation: Tania and her staff maintain strong links with those who have already risen to the top, regularly inviting movers and shakers to speak to James Hargest students. Examples include astronauts from the European Space Agency, a cosmologist from Australia and local speakers such as engineers and chemists from New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter.

Q And A With Tania Lineham, 2015 Prime Minister's Science Teacher Prize Winner

Q: What do you think is the best approach in getting the best out of students of all abilities? How do you make sure you extend gifted kids while looking after the needs of those not so able?

A:It is important to differentiate your teaching and learning programme to cater for the needs of all students, and it is just as important to cater for those in the often forgotten middle of the class. I do not tend to give students different contexts or content to work on but like to operate on a ‘must do, should do, could do’ basis – the key is to engage students first and give them some choice (which can be limited) as to what they learn. That sounds a bit fluffy but it mustn’t be. Learning still needs to be academically rigorous. I often use the ‘5E’ learning cycle approach – Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration, and Evaluation in my planning. I teach chemistry and science so there are many concepts and ideas that are not visible to the naked eye. In those situations it is important to help students ‘make visible the invisible’ (from Cognitive Modelling by Roy Tasker) because that is the way most of us do most of our learning – visually.”

Q: What’s the most important piece of teaching wisdom that you’ve run into in recent years, that’s made an impact in your practice?

A: “I’m not sure whether this is the most important piece of teaching wisdom I’ve received, but I believe there is something of a fallacy out there in the community: there are a lot of new tools coming out all the time – we have moved from data projectors to interactive whiteboards for example, and now students are bringing their own devices to class. I believe it’s important to remember that these are just tools. These tools will never replace an effective teacher in the classroom. Good pedagogy is the key to good teaching, not the tools you and your students are using.”

Q: What’s your secret for engaging students? How much does a love of science ‘rub off’ in the classroom?

A: “It’s all about the passion. A teacher who is passionate about their teaching is going to ‘hook in’ more students than someone just going through the motions. The love of science does rub off. Many of my students would tell you that science or chemistry is their favourite subject and I am sure you will find the same of students taught by any teacher passionate about what they teach.”

Q: What would be your advice to a nervous science teacher graduate about to start day one of new career?

A: “That’s a hard one because everyone is different. Apart from the obvious that they would have been given in their training, I think it is important for beginning teachers to give themselves permission to make mistakes. Don’t feel like you have to know the answer to every question and be prepared to learn from the students as you expect them to learn from you. Students are very forgiving of these things as long as you make the effort to own and correct mistakes and you are honest with them – this builds positive relationships with students.

“I would also say keep the big picture in mind and don’t get bogged down in detail, be prepared for classes but also be prepared to change what you have planned as well. Lessons seldom progress exactly the way you think they will. Most importantly, be prepared to show the students how excited you are to be teaching them, share your passion and have fun with it.”

2015 Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize winner: Georgia Lala, Auckland Diocesan School for Girls

It’s been said that one of the key attributes of tomorrow’s leaders will be the ability to learn many skills and disciplines in realising their goals.

Tomorrow’s scientists will be nothing like the cliché ‘boffin’, shut away in a lab. They’ll know, for example, the best way to communicate their eureka moments to those who fund new ideas. They’ll be able to identify a gap in a market, and craft appropriate solutions. Georgia has done just that in the work that won her the 2015 Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize.

Put simply, what Georgia has done is to develop a system for growing plants for family consumption which has a negligible carbon footprint.

Her idea came about from her study of the nitrogen cycle. Plants need minerals and nutrients, but these can often be harmful if they’re sourced artificially as fertiliser, both due to the methods used to manufacture them, and their tendency to create imbalances in the soil they’re introduced to.

Her wonderfully elegant solution has been to create a symbiotic relationship involving edible plants and a common family pet. Fish produce – as waste by-products – a number of minerals that plants require. Plants do a great job of filtering these naturally occurring chemicals – that would otherwise build up to levels fish couldn’t tolerate – from the aquatic environment. So Georgia’s creation is an aquaponics system that exposes plant roots to fish tank water. After extensive trials, her idea has attracted national and international interest. She’s set up her own business based on the idea, and is now owner and founder of Root Aquaponics Business.

Georgia has a strong interest in the world around her and is an active member of the school Ethics Council and the Community Services council. She was also a delegate at the Harvard Model United Nations and a delegate at the New Zealand Model United Nations and she also participated in the International Diplomacy Competition.

Q And A With Georgia Lala, 2015 Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize Winner

Q: Where did the idea for your aquaponics system come from?

A: “I was first inspired by the large-scale aquaponics units at Disney Epcot in Orlando, which I visited on a family holiday. Epcot has several large greenhouses which produce much of the food for Epcot inhabitants. I was inspired by these large units and when I arrived home I looked into whether you could have these types of systems at home. However the only aquaponic units I found in New Zealand were on a massive commercial scale, so my project centred around making aquaponics available at a home level.”

Q: What are the innovative strengths of your system, do you think?

A: “My project focuses on the impact of commercial agriculture on ‘peak oil’, ‘peak water’ and climate change. My primary focus was to design a new system that the average household could use to produce food as an alternative to buying commercially grown food. Since commercial agriculture has such a big impact on water, oil and climate change, if we could find a way to reduce our reliance on commercial agriculture, we could potentially postpone peak oil and peak water. My solution to this problem was to design an aquaponics system suitable for a home environment."

Q: Where is the project at now? You’ve formed a business to market the product, right?

A: "After constructing my own aquaponics unit, a few friends expressed interest in purchasing a unit for their own households! Since then I’ve been working on starting a business, Root Aquaponics, to sell these systems to schools and homes. My hope is that in the future, everyone could have an aquaponics unit in their house, because they are so small and easy to use, yet also very environmentally beneficial.”

Q: What plants are particularly suited to the Root Aquaponics system?

A: “My system is best designed for leafy green vegetables, such as lettuces, rocket and spinach. However I have also had success in growing herbs such as coriander, chives and parsley!”

Q: What has winning the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize meant for you?

A: “Winning this prize was something that I never expected! Science was a passion I stumbled into by accident, but winning this prize has provided me with the motivation and belief that this is a field that I want to devote my life to.”

By Jaylan Boyle

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:13 pm, 25 January 2016

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