In June, NSW announced the biggest shake-up of its curriculum in 30 years, vowing a “back to basics” approach that puts renewed focus on the core subjects of English, Maths and Science.
Part of the rationale for this focus involves PISA assessments, conducted between 2000 and 2018, which indicate a significant longer-term and continuing decline in 15-year olds’ understandings of how to apply basic reading, mathematical and scientific knowledge and skills in practical situations.
However, there have been encouraging signs that Australian students’ understanding of scientific concepts has been improving, particularly in the Primary years.
The latest NAP – Science Literacy assessment shows that at the national level, 58% of Year 6 students attained the proficient standard – the highest percentage of students to achieve it since the assessments were introduced.
Indeed, the work of Australia’s most passionate and effective science educators has played a significant role in this outcome.
Sarah Finney is a Grade 3 and 4 science teacher at Stirling East Primary School in South Australia. Last year, she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools for introducing hundreds of children of all ages to the joys of studying science, and inspiring others with her quest to expand her own knowledge in the field.
One of Finney’s most notable achievements is leading an in-depth science inquiry unit and encouraging students to pursue their personal science interests in a public setting.
Since receiving the Prize, she has been focused on contributing as a writer for the South Australia teaching curriculum and finding new ways to improve student engagement and interaction within virtual (and physical) classroom settings.
Below, The Educator speaks to Finney about the state of science education in 2020, some of the key challenges ahead and how educators can respond to them.
TE: Reports in recent years have indicated a decline in science enrolments. What do you consider to be some of the contributing factors to this, and how do you believe science educators can respond?
SF: I have seen a few featured news articles about the decline of enrolments in pure science subjects, but I have observed an increase in biology enrolments. The enrolments in chemistry have only slightly decreased, but physics has seen quite a drop of just over one thousand enrolments in the past decade. It seems that students are choosing more applied or topical science subjects such as ‘Earth and Environmental Science’. I believe that the application of physics is less well known than the application of subjects like biology and chemistry. Teachers can address this by providing more real-life examples of applications of technology brought about by progression in physics.
There has also been a strong focus on literacy and numeracy for primary educators, which when taught in isolation can be dull. Whole units of work on grammar, writing and vocabulary have been taught as separate from any other topic, textbooks and apps alike. Primary educators can think carefully about how their teaching could overlap to make learning purposeful. I have recently been trialling a technique for teaching grammar and vocabulary that can be applied in a classroom in context. This is using a ‘mentor sentence’ for a week. The sentence can originate from any text on any topic, and teachers don’t need to buy new textbooks, workbooks or apps to enable students’ engagement. Students examine, sort, and modify words in the sentence each day and real learning occurs. They revel in being able to be creative during a grammar lesson. Where possible, mathematics can be taught in combination with science too.
TE: Can you tell us about your contributions to the South Australia teaching curriculum and some of the ways in which you’ve been improving student engagement and interaction within virtual (and physical) classroom settings?
SF: I worked in a team of four inspiring teachers and one dynamic team leader to collaboratively design ‘pick up and go’ units of work for years 5 and 6 in science. I worked hard to ‘South Australianise’ the curriculum, and I assisted my colleagues with ideas and learned a lot from them too. Despite my Prime Minister’s Prize, I will be a lifelong learner, and I am grateful for relationships I have made and experiences that enable me to grow in my profession.
Our school has been an Apple Distinguished School for the past few years, and we were building up to a one-to-one iPad program – COVID-19 has helped us achieve this aim. Prior to pandemic, I was using the Google Suite of apps to create and deliver assignments to students, and it proved handy during the weeks where we were expected to provide lessons for students at home and at school. In the two terms I have been at school this year, and not writing curriculum, I have made a website with a link to Google Earth where people can do the soil layers in a jar test to determine soil quality, and upload their picture on to the global map. This website has had hits from rural Australia and England so far.
TE: In addition to introducing hundreds of children of all ages to the joys of studying science you have inspired others with your quest to expand your own knowledge. Can you tell us more about your professional development in this important field?
SF: Without a doubt, the best professional development I have ever attended has been the STEMX Academy. This is a selective program which takes some of the best science teachers, primary and secondary from around the nation to Canberra for a fun-filled, and mentally exhausting week of engaging and inspiring learning. It is run by the Australian Science Teachers’ Association and in conjunction with Questacon, the Australian National University and CSIRO. In groups from each state, science teachers band together to solve problems, learn about STEM teaching principles, and share ideas. There are opportunities to network with leading scientists and to make lasting professional connections with teachers from across Australia.
Each year I am involved in judging the Oliphant Science Awards, and the opportunity to discuss students’ work with other teachers is also highly beneficial experience. This year I was a head judge in two categories. I am also looking forward to the COVID-19 decline so that CONASTA can go ahead. The annual conference for Australian Science teachers was sadly cancelled this year, and last year the Darwin CONASTA was an important network building and learning opportunity.
TE: I understand that you’re leading an in-depth science inquiry unit and encouraging students to pursue their personal science interests in a public setting. In your view, what have been some of the most powerful and inspiring outcomes from this initiative?
SF: Aside from one of my guest science professionals recommending that I be nominated for the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools, the pride on the faces of the students as they share with experts is worth the Prize itself. Students begin to imagine themselves as scientists. When they receive feedback from professionals that their work is impressive, they feel the beginning of a sense of belonging to a club which was previously foreign to them.