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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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In2science: peer mentoring in Victorian schools

John McDonald
Peer Mentoring Manager, In2science - Science Peer Mentoring in Schools. C/o Faculty of Science, Technology & Engineering, La Trobe University email: J.McDonald@latrobe.edu.au

The In2science program supports science and mathematics teaching and learning in Victorian public schools. Targeted to students in the middle years (years 5–10), it aims, in particular, to generate enthusiasm for the enabling subjects of chemistry, mathematics and physics.

The program places volunteer university students into science and maths classrooms, where they are a role model to school students, and support teachers manage classroom activities. In 2011, 460 Peer Mentor placements have been organised in the program's 111 partner schools. Placements occur in schools in Melbourne and regional centres where the universities have campuses including Bendigo, Ballarat, Warrnambool, Churchill and Wodonga. In addition the program also organises travelling roadshows to allow regional schools to meet the Peer Mentors. Topics covered on the roadshows include nanotechnology and biotechnology, as well as a primary school roadshow on forces, run in collaboration with Quantum Victoria.

In2science began in 2004, established by the Faculties of Science at La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne. Monash University joined in 2008, with RMIT University, Swinburne University of Technology, University of Ballarat and Deakin University joining in 2010. The program promotes science engagement generally and does not focus on particular universities or courses. In2science is provided at no cost to schools, apart from the commitment of participating teachers' time. It is modelled on the Perth-based STAR Programme and other programs overseas. In2science is currently funded by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD).

The current article describes the role of the In2science Peer Mentors in schools.


The Peer Mentors

In2science Peer Mentors are typically undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students, and have all completed at least one year of their degree. They represent a diversity of disciplines, from biochemistry to engineering, physics to zoology, psychology to mathematics. The Peer Mentors volunteer for the program: it is not a compulsory component of their university studies. They are interviewed and selected on the basis of their motivation, communication skills and other relevant qualities, and they have all completed a Working with Children check.

A pre-placement training program prepares them for their classroom role. Before starting, they visit their allocated school to meet staff and learn about the school and the classes they will be working with. In2science aims to place one to four Peer Mentors at each participating school. The program also aims to keep providing Peer Mentors each year, to ensure sustainability of the program at each school.

At each university a program coordinator undertakes recruitment, selection and training of their Peer Mentors. The coordinators themselves work as a cross-university 'In2science Team', administering the overall program collaboratively.
 

The operation of the program within schools

The Peer Mentors spend two to three hours a week in designated classes. Placements run across two school terms, generally for about 10 weeks each semester. This prolonged interaction allows strong relationships and rapport to be established between teacher, students and Peer Mentor. Some Peer Mentors develop relationships with their host schools which continue for several years.

Participating teachers nominate potential classes for the Peer Mentor to attend, and then, following discussion with the Peer Mentors themselves, determine a suitable role for them. Class teachers receive documentation to help them understand the program, with suggestions of how to make the most of the Peer Mentor's involvement.

One staff member at each participating school serves as 'Link Teacher', who coordinates other participating teachers' involvement. The Link Teacher also liaises between the school and the In2science Team managing the program. Often, although not always, the Link Teacher is the science coordinator at the school. Link Teachers receive a school's pack which contains all the necessary information for managing placements.

During placements, the In2science Team makes visits to the schools, observing the Peer Mentors in action and offering support to both the teacher and Peer Mentor. A regular newsletter is produced during placements, to share the experiences of the Peer Mentors and to provide updates from the institutions regarding the latest news from the world of science and mathematics.
 

Findings from evaluations of the program

An internal review of the program is conducted at the end of each placement block. A review conducted during first semester this year strongly endorsed the value of many aspects of the program. The great majority of students indicated that Peer Mentors had improved their understanding of topics covered in their classes, while eight out of 10 teachers felt that the Peer Mentor had made science or maths more relevant and interesting to their students.

In2science has also been evaluated externally by the University of Melbourne's Centre for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) in 2006 and 2009. The CSHE's 2009 review, conducted at five case-study schools, involved in-depth interviews with teachers and principals, complemented by group interviews with students from some participating teachers' classes, and by a questionnaire-based survey of Peer Mentors.

The 2009 CHSE review identified many benefits of the program. It underlined the Peer Mentors' role in helping to answer students' questions about coursework, at times when the teacher is busy or when students want a topic explained in a different way. It found that the Peer Mentor often aids less confident students who don't wish to draw attention to their question. At the same time the Peer Mentor can support challenges set by the teacher for high-achieving students who have completed class work ahead of time.

The Peer Mentors often take the initiative, talking to students who seem to be disengaged. They play a role in keeping students on task during practical classes, by identifying students who seem to be drifting, and explaining the content or the procedures that have stalled their work.

The Peer Mentors have also served as valuable role models for school students. Female Peer Mentors (who make up approximately 65% of the program) have been important role models for girls, changing their perception of science and raising their aspirations to further their studies. Peer Mentors from minority groups under-represented at university have also been important as success stories for school students of the same background, who may lack positive role models in their own personal environments. Many students find it relatively easy to ask questions, explore ideas and seek help from a young person they see as a fellow learner. The Peer Mentors may also help students see the importance of science by making links between their personal interests, such as sports or nutrition and areas of science.

For teachers, there are multiple benefits in having another knowledgeable person to help in class. The Peer Mentor can support the teacher by answering some students' questions in class and by helping to set up and manage equipment. This allows the teacher to focus on other issues in the class or focus their support on individuals. Practical classes are deemed safer, and sometimes only made possible, through the availability of an extra supervisor.

Peer Mentors often contribute ideas, information, or expertise that is complementary to the teachers', particularly when their studies have covered different areas of science. The Peer Mentors may also have had more experience of integrated and problem-based science than the teacher. In some cases teaching in the middle years is undertaken by teachers with limited scientific background so the support of an 'expert in the classroom' is highly valued. Apart from academic knowledge itself, the Peer Mentors have also been able to offer teachers new ideas on how to conduct practical classes.

The presence of the Peer Mentors often provides an incentive to teachers to adapt their own teaching methods, under the stimulus of preparing lessons in which the Peer Mentor can participate.
 

Conditions for the success of In2science in a school

The CHSE review also identified a range of factors that make for the successful implementation of In2science at a school. Perhaps the most critical is to have at least one teacher willing to champion the program among colleagues and coordinate it across the school. It is also important that teachers take part only on a voluntary basis. Other conditions for success include:

  • a supportive and involved school leadership
  • alignment of the Peer Mentors' role with science teaching at the school, and with the school's overall mission
  • recognition and support for the role of the Link Teacher
  • time for the teachers to engage with the program outside their classes; for example, by attending relevant information sessions
  • an understanding, across the school, of the Peer Mentor's role and the fact that they are young scientists rather than teaching aides or pre-service teachers
  • communication, negotiation between teachers and Peer Mentors, and a mutual willingness to be flexible
  • opportunities for students to interact with the Peer Mentor during classes.

Programs such as In2science also need to be well structured and coordinated, and embedded in a sustainable way within the teaching culture of the school.
 

Conclusion

In2science is a well-organised and effective program which has been found to benefit students, teachers, and schools as a whole. The program encourages middle years' students to relate science to their lives and interests. As a result, students often discover that science is not confined to school classrooms or remote laboratories, and that scientists are diverse people from a variety of backgrounds.

Ideally, the school as a whole benefits as curriculum is enriched by the latest knowledge, techniques and debates in the field; as teachers are exposed to current science and knowledge that complements their own knowledge; as science/mathematics classes become more interactive, and as teachers become more willing to collaborate and share ideas. The program can have positive effects upon a school's science teaching culture. Working with Peer Mentors, describing what they plan to do in class and why, and negotiating Peer Mentors' involvement, promotes reflective practice among teachers. Science classes can become more interactive, and teachers are actively encouraged to experiment and to share ideas.

Key Learning Areas

Mathematics
Science

Subject Headings

Mentors
Science teaching
Mathematics teaching
Secondary education
Tertiary education