Lessons from lab to everyday life


18 June 2020

Creating a zoo-based science program, tracking endangered species in the local park and baking a chocolate cake are some ideas from Monash University’s Science Education Research Group to get students enthusiastic about learning science.

This team of education academics has been mulling over the question of how to increase school students’ science literacy and build a stronger Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce.

While standardised test results and data can be ambiguous, several trends are apparent, says team member and author Professor Deborah Corrigan. Science participation in secondary schools has been steady over the past decade, student engagement is problematic, and science literacy across the overall school leaver cohort is poor, she says.

In Science Education for Australian Students: Teaching Science from Foundation to Year 12, Corrigan and Associate Professor Angela Fitzgerald combine pedagogy and practical examples for teachers in early childhood, primary and secondary school settings.

The book is based on the constructivist theory of education, which recognises learning as a building process, that teachers are learners and that students bring their own experiences to the classroom.

Out of the classroom

Context and settings are critical, and this means getting out in nature, and moving out of the classroom.

“Science is about explanations of the natural world,” says Corrigan. “If you’re going to create explanations of the natural world, you’ve got to go out into the natural world.”

Informal settings allow testing of science in a real place and generation of genuine explanations. They can be accessed physically, or virtually, but need to be seen as a vital and close link with formal education settings, she says.

“Classrooms make sense for controlled experiments and investigation – but they are probably one of the most sterile places to learn.”

The authors provide case studies of science education through partnerships and outreach programs with Zoos Victoria and other nature centres.

In one example, primary school students participated in a marine entanglement project that became a multi-year program which included community days and mentoring of other schools.

For students, teachers and the wider community, seal deaths through fishing line entanglements on the coastal fringe where they lived were real-life problems, and the conservation science and messages they learned were authentic and purposeful, Corrigan says.

The key is to embed science knowledge in practical applications and outcomes. “Concepts are important, but only if they enable us to do something.”

Assess what’s taught

Moving beyond the one-off field trip and creating space for new ways of learning and experiencing science education means reviewing how the curriculum is delivered.

“We need to build a deep understanding and integrate siloed elements of the curriculum – and ask what are the fundamentally important ideas in science. These are things like observing with a purpose, creating explanations, developing models and creating systems thinking, and how those models join together to create systems.

“We want to be developing in our students the understanding that science is one of many ways of thinking and acting. If I want to apply ‘a science lens’, for example, I need to think about the science approach of using direct observation and coming up with an explanation,” Corrigan says.

She believes the science curriculum is overcrowded and overwhelming – for students and teachers – with an over reliance on concepts and facts.

“We’ve got to think seriously about identifying what’s important in the curriculum,” she says, adding that teachers need to be given time to contextualise and personalise the curriculum for their students.

Teachers as learners

Access to ongoing professional development, team teaching and collaboration are essential for building teacher confidence, says Corrigan. “Teachers don’t have to know everything; they can be a learner in this space, and work with others.”

Reflection and collaboration are active processes and go far beyond notions of groupwork. “They require you to negotiate and navigate, pick sides and compromise, and do all those really challenging things that you have to do when you collaborate,” says Corrigan. And teachers can build this capacity in their students.

Bringing science in from the margins is an opportunity that will benefit all. “Science doesn’t need to be learnt in isolation,” says Corrigan. “It is a great vehicle for learning literacy and numeracy.”

In her career as a university academic, Corrigan remembers the impact of a lecture entitled chemistry of the chocolate cake, which touched on the entire chemistry curriculum in one mesmerising hour. “There are very few people who don’t like chocolate cake – and if you’re gluten free, that’s also part of the science.

“The hook is starting where people have a lived experience and embedding science there.”

By Krista Mogensen

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Winter 2020