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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Collaborative and innovative teaching approaches to enhance the opportunities for all students in the sciences

Debra Panizzon

Debra Panizzon was a ‘critical academic friend’ for SMAF and co-director for the NVSES project. Further information about the broader context of the work discussed here is available in her Deans’ lecture delivered around rural science education in 2013.


Australian students continue to perform well in the science tests conducted for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), where only a small band of countries out-perform Australia. However, the science results of students in regional and rural schools are consistently and significantly lower than those of peers in the majority of metropolitan schools.

Aside from equity issues, the lower achievement levels of these students make it harder to ensure an adequate supply of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)–considered by many countries to be a high priority for guaranteeing future economic prosperity in a competitive global economy.

This article describes two projects that are addressing these problems by helping science teachers enhance the learning opportunities of their science students. In both cases, high levels of collaboration among educators have been a key to success.
 

Science and Maths Academy at Flinders (SMAF)

In 2010 a group of interested principals met to discuss issues facing schools in the southern part of Adelaide. A major issue to tackle was a lack of teachers with the knowledge and expertise required to conduct physics, chemistry and specialist mathematics classes at senior school level. Aligned to this was the problem of providing these subjects when the number of interested students was very small: classes of less than five were impractical, while failure to run classes would mean that these students missed the opportunity to continue with science or mathematics to the end of year 12, limiting their progress into university pathways.

The outcome was a collaborative program entitled the Science and Maths Academy at Flinders (SMAF) involving staff from Flinders University, seven South Australian government high schools located in the southern region of Adelaide, and the South Knowledge Transfer Partnership (SKTP). Funding for the project, provided by SKTP, was used to employ a program coordinator and a part-time laboratory technician.

The focus of the program was to provide the teaching of years 11-12 physics, chemistry and specialist mathematics on the university campus. Teachers for the SMAF program were selected from the participating schools, thereby pooling their expertise to offer classes to the students as a collective. On campus the classes accessed the university’s teaching spaces, library and specialist scientific laboratories and equipment free of charge, and scientists at the university provided guest lectures and demonstrations.

The overall schedule for SMAF required students and teaching staff to be on campus for at least three hours per week for each subject. It was the responsibility of individual schools to get their students to the university for the designated teaching times. Students undertaking combinations of subjects (eg physics and chemistry) had to remain on campus for the entire day, spending three hours on both subjects. Visits to the university were followed by in-school support provided by an academic tutor. In the first year of the program there were 35 year 11 enrolments for chemistry, 38 for physics and 21 for specialist mathematics. The majority of these students continued with the SMAF program in 2011 to complete year 12.

Before teaching began, each team of SMAF teachers met on at least five occasions to consider the curriculum (ie content and skills requirements) and the pedagogies that might successfully cater for the diversity of students involved. This point was critical to the success of the program, given that students came from different schools with divergent prior experiences. At another level, there was the need to ensure that lines of communication between the SMAF teachers and tutors in the schools were clear, particularly in regard to the expectations and requirements of students between the formal teaching sessions each week.

To enhance ongoing communication, not just between teachers but also between students, the decision was made to incorporate an online platform. This was achieved through the university system, allowing all students to access a range of teaching materials and information, along with the opportunity to engage in electronic forums (blogs and wikis) at times that suited and supported the students’ own learning.

An evaluation of the program was conducted by an external evaluator to monitor the impact of the teaching experience while providing feedback to the SMAF teaching team. Using student surveys and interviews, data was collected during the middle and at the end of 2011.

Results from the surveys and interviews demonstrated a range of positive responses about the ways in which learning in science was supported through participation in SMAF. Students also spoke highly about the strong positive student–teacher relationships and student–student relationships they experienced. One of the benefits students commented on was the ability to access university resources, as articulated by a year 11 physics student:

Instead of being in a class with one linear air track and having to wait to use the track or watch a teacher demonstration, we investigated the physics principles in groups because there were eight air tracks in the laboratory. Also, each air track was connected to a computer so we could observe the data being recorded in real time while making decisions about the variables to be investigated.

Visits to the campus offered students greater insights about university life: many of those from low-SES backgrounds were the first in their families to attend a university campus. Involvement in the program on university space shared by tertiary students and science academics, supported the transitioning of keen science and mathematics students from small-school contexts into a much larger and impersonal environment.

SMAF is still operational and making a positive contribution to schools in 2014.


National Virtual School of Emerging Sciences

In contrast to a face-to-face teaching environment provided by SMAF, imagine a classroom that allows enthusiastic year 10 students from secondary schools across Australia to connect synchronously twice a week to discuss black holes, the nature of dark matter, and the origin of the universe, with access to eminent scientists and the latest cutting edge research. Now stretch the imagination further with students in another class exploring the properties of carbon nanotubes, magic sand and the role of nano-particles in sunscreens. Welcome to the National Virtual School of Emerging Sciences (NVSES), which offers exposure to the emerging sciences of astrophysics, quantum physics, nanoscience, and nanotechnology. Funding for NVSES was provided by the Australian Government Department of Education (formerly DEEWR) and involves a partnership between Monash University, the John Monash Science School (JMSS) and Pearson Education.

Using Cisco WebEx®, students located in their own schools connect into a virtual classroom through their computer and headset, to be welcomed by two NVSES teachers located in a purpose-built studio at the JMSS in Victoria. WebEx allows students to engage with their NVSES teachers and other students: visually using webcams, and verbally using a microphone. In addition, students have access to Back Chat, a text-based chat forum that operates in a dedicated part of the WebEx screen throughout lessons, providing students with the opportunity to pose questions that teachers and students can then engage with when appropriate to the teaching context. While connected in the classroom students work in groups, accessing Google documents and the internet as required. It is not simply about teachers talking and students listening.

To monitor the progress of learning, students completed online surveys at the beginning and completion of each NVSES unit. These surveys explored aspects of student interests in science, and possible future subject selections, and provided insights about the learning opportunities they had experienced.

An aspect of NVSES particularly enjoyed by students (identified via the student feedback) was the opportunity to engage and collaborate with peers from schools across Australia. Educationally, this allowed students to share rich insights based on their specific locations and contexts. For example, during an astrophysics class in 2013, after students had explored a number of NASA star maps, they were introduced to a star observation task for homework. Predictably this task sparked some discussion but prompted a particularly challenging question from one student: 'Will these stars be in the same position for me in Perth tonight?' Silence. This student lived along the eastern seaboard of Australia but was at the time visiting family in Perth. His question generated a myriad of related questions as the class explored issues related to their location and its impact on one’s view of the night sky. While this question may have emerged in a face-to-face classroom, its implications were much more authentic, given that class members resided in different latitudes and time zones.

Another teaching snapshot that demonstrates the use of the technologies and importance of access to scientific expertise in the area occurred during an astrophysics lesson, involving 27 students from eight secondary schools across three states. Dr Marian Anderson from Monash University was invited to speak about her work as an adviser to NASA. During her interactive chat with students, Marian was able to discuss her role in helping NASA identify possible landing sites for the Mars rover, responding in real-time to direct questions from students. During the lesson Marian discussed her own research on the geology of Mars while identifying and explaining various structural features as she appeared to stroll across its surface. This up-close and personal encounter with the geological features of the planet was made possible using ‘green screen’ Chroma special effects technology (controlled from the NVSES teaching space), combined with authentic mission photographs taken from the surface of Mars.


Conclusion

The two examples provided here do not attempt to replace school science. These projects are about supporting science teachers, especially in schools where specialist science teachers are in short supply, to enhance the school science experience for their students in relation to both engagement and learning.

Key Learning Areas

Science

Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Science teaching