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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Young Tall Poppies: engaging students in science

Elektra Spathopoulos
Executive Director, Australian Institute of Policy and Science

The Tall Poppy Campaign is a program of the Australian Institute of Policy & Science (AIPS) that aims to recognise Australia’s high achievers in the sciences, including mathematics and engineering, and to engage them in the promotion of science and scientific literacy in schools and the broader community.

A prime aim of the Campaign is to encourage younger generations to follow in the footsteps of scientists who display leadership in the promotion of science and scientific research. The Campaign was first established in 1998, and campaign outreach activities have been held in all states and territories except Tasmania and the Northern Territory over the past decade.

The AIPS is a not-for-profit, independent organisation and the Campaign is supported by grants from the Australian Government and state governments, as well as sponsorship from universities and industry partners.

The Young Tall Poppy Science Awards celebrate Australia’s outstanding young post-doctoral researchers across all fields of science, biomedicine and technology. The awards are unique in recognising research and academic excellence, as well as recipients’ capacity and commitment to promote science and its significance to the community.

Many early winners of Young Tall Poppy Science Awards have gone on to receive higher accolades, and continue to carry their enthusiasm for science into leadership roles in their fields and in society. The AIPS website provides details of these individuals, who together provide a national resource for science engagement and promotion initiatives.

The Young Tall Poppies Reaching Students Program

Winners of the Young Tall Poppy Scientists Award participate in the Young Tall Poppies Reaching Students Program. Through the program they visit schools and conduct innovative activities, sharing their scientific expertise in line with the curriculum of their relevant state. They share their personal stories and describe their career paths, making face-to-face connections with students. This personal connection may be particularly important as a way of encouraging young people to take up future careers in science. Although science enrolments in Years 11 and 12 are relatively steady, fewer young people are taking up higher education in the sciences. Young Tall Poppies also assist in the professional development of teachers, especially in rural and disadvantaged areas, and participate in broader community and policy sector debates and outreach.

In 2007–08, 4,670 individual students in more than 46 schools were involved in the program, and its reach continues to grow. Helped by the innovative use of technology such as videoconferencing, the program has reached around 100 schools and thousands of students since July 2008.

Seminars are held in each participating state on many topical issues such as stem cell research, climate change and mathematics and science. Recent popular seminars included a New South Wales ‘Women in Science’ workshop, while in South Australia an oceanography seminar attracted participants from eight high schools. At these seminars, students from different schools have the opportunity to learn about current research, and to develop a deeper understanding of the topics presented by asking questions and interacting with the participating scientists. Problem-solving discussions give them the opportunity to address mainstream and ethical issues associated with these areas of research, and to examine possible problems and solutions. Visits to university laboratories have been organised for older students looking at a career in science, allowing them to experience first hand how a research lab works, and what further scientific study might involve.

Since late 2008 the Tall Poppy Campaign has used the New South Wales Connected Classrooms Program (CCP) to increase interest in science among public school students in rural and remote areas. The interactive nature of the CCP allows students to view the scientists’ presentations in real time, and ask questions that may arise. The Campaign is currently working in cooperation with the State Department of Education to develop an online resource from these video conferences. In future, teachers will be able to access the slideshows and transcripts from the talks as well as download the audio and video footage of the original conference. Together with suggested activities, these talks will prove to be an invaluable resource to teachers. 

The Campaign has also been conducting forums to help promote the professional development of both primary and high school teachers. These forums have given teachers valuable opportunities to talk to the scientists and to familiarise themselves with current research being carried out in Australia.

Options for a formal evaluation of the Campaign are currently being investigated. So far, informal feedback from teachers has been positive. Many teachers report that they have been able to connect the presentations to various areas and year levels of the curriculum, and expect that these presentations will help improve students’ interest and participation in science. The feedback suggests that direct personal contact with scientists and engagement in real time conversation is a critical element of the Campaign. Suggested improvements, such as additional interactive activities and supporting materials, are currently being implemented.

The Campaign now includes nearly 200 Young Tall Poppies representing many fields of scientific research, such as cancer research, nanotechnology, epidemiology and organic chemistry. All are concerned not only for the future of their research but for the future of scientific research as a whole. The Tall Poppy Campaign seeks to encourage the next generation of scientific minds by showing them the real world applications and relevance of science.

The Campaign’s principal national funders are the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, with major state supporters being the New South Wales Office of Medical Research and the Department of Education and Training; the South Australian Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology; and the Victorian Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development. Full details of Tall Poppy Campaign supporters can be found at http://www.aips.net.au/20_2.html.

The Tall Poppy Campaign is in a period of growth and development. Teachers and other stakeholders with an idea for partnership, or wishing to access our initiatives, are encouraged to visit the Campaign website at www.aips.net.au, or to contact the Tall Poppy Campaign team.

Key Learning Areas

Science

Subject Headings

Science
Science teaching