Strategies for science engagement

Issue: Volume 95, Number 2

Posted: 9 February 2016
Reference #: 1H9cyn

Team Solutions, part of The University of Auckland’s PLD division, is working with schools to encourage the use of contexts that get kids excited about science.

The Ministry of Education has contracted the science facilitators within the Secondary Student Achievement PLD contract to work with schools currently assessing NCEA Level 1 science students against unit standards. As part of this work, science facilitators from Team Solutions have worked with around 100 schools in the upper North Island region over the past three years. The aim has been to work alongside these schools to help them develop strategies to assess all science students at NCEA Level 1 against achievement standards. In the southern regions of the country, this work has been facilitated by Te Tapuae o Rēhua consortium (University of Canterbury, University of Otago and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu).

Mahurangi College is one of the schools involved in this PLD. Two teachers, Caz Waugh and Cecile Duchesnes, attended three workshops and worked closely with the science facilitators. The school has two NCEA Level 1 internal science classes and one NCEA Level 2 internal science class. Caz and Cecile had identified issues around student engagement and completion of tasks in previous years. They felt the students were capable but were not completing tasks through a lack of confidence and self-belief. The students in the classes were often not succeeding at school generally and had found the year 10 science course challenging.

Students enjoyed making jewellery and were asked to explain their choice of metals, referring to chemical and physical properties

Sharing strategies

At specially designed workshops, teachers were encouraged to identify and share contexts that engage students. Caz and Cecile decided to focus on contexts that would either connect more directly with the students’ experience or that would be more enjoyable for the students.

Caz had collected feedback from her students at the end of 2014 and found that all of the students had enjoyed the rockets investigation they had carried out and this had been the most successful assessment in terms of student achievement. Caz and Cecile decided to make several changes to contexts for their classes in 2015.


Biology 1.1 (Investigation in a biological context, AS90925) was changed from an investigation into enzyme reaction rates into an investigation into pulse rates during exercise. It was felt this was a much more relevant context and many of the students were interested in sport and had prior knowledge of pulse rates and how they can change.

Science 1.7 (Uses of metals, AS90946) was changed from research into metals used in cars to the design and production of two pieces of jewellery, one from metal and one from coloured, glazed pottery.

Physics 2.1 (Investigating a non-linear relationship, AS91168) was a new standard for the teachers. Students made different types of catapults using marshmallow projectiles and then formed a team to make a slingshot. The students made their own, perfecting their design as part of a competition.

The results showed significant improvement. In the NCEA Level 2 class, 85% of the students achieved 12 or more credits in science achievement standards last year. In the NCEA Level 1 class, 58% have currently achieved 12 credits, but all of the results are not yet finalised and there are credits still to come.

Deceptively simple

It may seem that the changes these teachers made are quite simple. But it was a wholesale change in what they were doing. Caz and Cecile describe it as a “massive” change. They were trying lots of new things, making it fun for the students and thereby engaging them and getting better results. The teachers observed that once the students got a whiff of success with the achievement standards, their lift in self-esteem was huge – they realised that they could do it and that they weren’t “dumb”.


Caz and Cecile’s changes provided much more time for students to experiment, make mistakes and revisit learning opportunities. The students appreciated the opportunity to repeat activities and build relevant science vocabulary before they were assessed. The contexts allowed them to play, create and learn.

The resources the two teachers developed were also very different. Both are very creative teachers and this is reflected in resources that are colourful and well designed, with plenty of room for student input.

Both teachers remarked that because the resources were more colourful and well designed the students seemed to value them more and were more careful about the work they added. Rather than just writing descriptions, students often took photos of chemical reactions or equipment and printed the photos out as part of their booklets. The time the teachers had taken in preparing the booklets was reflected in the care with which the students treated them.

Encouraging engagement

Other highlights of the NCEA Level 2 course were the use of rocketry for an earth and space science investigation and an Education for Sustainability standard around actions to support sustainability. This culminated in raising $1,200 for the Water Project online charity in Africa.


Caz, originally from South Africa, is very positive about her year working as part of this science PLD. “I have had to change my attitude completely. I loved it, put no pressure on myself to get through the content, I have relaxed.” In her materials she used her knowledge of New Zealand and African climates to highlight the issues faced in other countries and compared the use of the word ‘drought’ in both continents.

The climate topic and the jewellery metals topic were of interest to both teachers. They were also lucky enough to have a lab technician at Mahurangi College who makes and sells pottery pieces. She used her connections to provide use of a kiln for the students’ ceramic creations. The Mahurangi College science department is now thinking about purchasing a kiln. We often talk about connecting to the students’ background and interests, but if these can overlap with teachers’ enthusiasm and passion then everyone benefits.

Student voice collected at the school this year mentions how students look forward to science lessons. They comment on how much fun they are having and how less stress makes learning more enjoyable. Students also say that they used to be bad at science but now they are succeeding.

Plans for next year include introducing a micro-organisms topic at NCEA Level 1, which will be based around helpful micro-organisms and food. Caz and Cecile hope this will culminate in a party where all the food has been prepared with the help of micro-organisms. Ginger beer, cheese, bread and yoghurt could all be on the menu. They would also like to incorporate a second field trip for their students so there is a second opportunity to achieve in the science standard 1.13, Surface Features.

The key lessons Caz and Cecile have learned in encouraging disengaged students to achieve in science are:

  • Find contexts that connect with students’ prior learning and are fun.
  • Give students time, don’t rush through – build vocabulary, knowledge and skills until students are confident.
  • Use achievement standards from across the assessment matrices, don’t limit yourself to what you have always done.
  • Try new approaches, don’t be afraid to make mistakes as the course can change again if it doesn’t work out.
  • Once students taste success they start to believe in themselves.

BY Ian McHale
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Posted: 9:04 PM, 9 February 2016

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