Putting the squeeze on science
The day Associate Professor Jan de Gier visits your classroom with his lemon-electricity-conducting experiment is the day you don’t want to get a paper cut on your finger.
You might also want to give the Brunswick South-West Primary School grade 3/4 room a wide berth when the students line up, rulers at the ready, to test rubber band flight distances across the hall.
Although it might seem more like schoolyard antics, this is maths in action and it’s all part of Scientists in Schools, an engagement initiative funded by the Australian Government and the CSIRO.
Associate Professor de Gier, an academic with the University of Melbourne’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, is one of around 40 University scientists and researchers taking part in the Scientists in Schools program, and its sub-program Mathematicians in Schools.
Established in 2007 Scientists in Schools creates and supports learning experiences through partnerships with teachers in primary and secondary schools across Australia.
Associate Professor de Gier’s involvement in the program started through a family connection.
“My children had just started at the primary school at the time so it seemed like a natural connection to make. I also think that science education in primary schools needs to be vibrant and engaging,” he says.
“Maurice Ryan, a teacher at the school, has really championed this type of curriculum for a number of years. He has initiated engaging projects which show that applied learning really makes a difference for the students. I support his vision with my knowledge and together we’ve created projects which can be applied in other classrooms.”
Under Mr Ryan’s guidance and supported by colleague Barbara Smith, students in grades 3 and 4 have watched a tin can implode, launched water rockets into the sky, measured the elasticity of rubber bands and discovered that lemons can indeed generate electricity.
“That was a very successful experiment – the students were able to create enough of a current from a handful of lemons to power a small LED light,” Associate Professor de Gier says.
“From those findings we used maths to work out how many lemons would power the classroom lights, and then the lights throughout the whole school. The kids really get into it, they are interested in how things behave. And then they start doing the maths because there’s a reason for it.”
While the maths is a key outcome, Mr Ryan admits there’s a certain delight in working with “things that go boom”, for teachers and students alike. It’s this interactive approach which is making a big difference in the classroom.
“Teaching science in school has its limitations,” he says.
“We are constantly pulled back by lack of resources. But when you see the difference this sort of engagement is having, it’s worth the effort.
“You can see the kids who usually sit in the back of the classroom almost push their way to the front – they change from ‘humdrum’ to ‘yes, this is exciting’.”
Across town in the north, Dr Kate Murphy of the University’s Department of Physiology is working with students and teachers at Catholic Ladies’ College (CLC) in Eltham to explore science through interactive learning.
Dr Murphy draws on her research into muscle wasting in cancer patients to enrich the curriculum for Year 10 students. Last year she hosted a school visit to the University lab where students conducted a number of muscle-staining experiments and saw what tertiary science study is all about.
“When I signed up to the program I was particularly interested in working with an all-girl group of students,” she says.
“I’m very passionate about passing on a love of science to females because there are so few in the field. Having a female scientist visit their classroom was good for the students I think, to show them how that knowledge can be applied to a career path.”
Dr Murphy will be working with CLC educators Dr Dawn Duncan and Ms Cathy Jackson over the next school term with a new intake of eager students – the first time the subject has been offered as an elective rather than an extra-curricular class.
The Scientists in Schools partnership will build on the CLC’s key theme for the term of a virtual ‘Mission to Mars’, incorporating an altitude climb, stem cell study and investigations into muscle injury and repair.
Ms Jackson says the opportunity for students to connect with scientists significantly enriches the learning experience.
“It’s great to hear and interact with a real-life scientist and for the students to see the sort of work they do,” she says.
“School work is largely limited to what you experience in the classroom, so being connected to that practical side is essential.”
These connections are central to the success of the Scientists in Schools program which hopes to support increased student participation in science and maths-related study.
Above all, participants in the program agree that the interactive aspect is key to building better science teaching and learning methods.
For Brunswick South-West PS student Harry Silke and his classmates, the icing on the cake surely is the opportunity to “drink a lot of lemonade afterwards!”.