Media Centre for Educational Research (MCERA) <https://www.mcera.org.au/>, Press Release, 6 November 2017

Press/Media: Research

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SCIENCE EXPERTS “WALK THE TALK” TO IMPROVE PRIMARY STUDENTS’ STEM LEARNING

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The involvement of “community science experts” in primary school classrooms can transform students’ views about and understanding of science, a leading STEM researcher said today.

Dr Anne Forbes of Macquarie University said bringing in science and engineering experts who “walk the talk of science” helps students understand the processes of scientific inquiry and their value to social progress.                    

 Dr Forbes is a Senior Lecturer in STEM Education who with her colleague Mr Gerry McCloughlan (now retired) developed the MyScience educational model to stimulate primary school students’ excitement about science and to support primary teachers who may not have the knowledge or confidence to “dive into” science.

Initially introduced as a pilot study into a group of NSW primary schools in 2006, MyScience focuses on students coming up with specific, testable questions related to a curriculum-linked theme such as natural disasters or sustainability. The students work in small groups to develop projects investigating their questions, with “Scientist Mentors” from the local school community coming into the classroom to help them plan their experiments and analyse their results.

Since 2007, Dr Forbes has conducted research with the teachers and students to measure the model’s success. The most recent study, published as “’You actually feel like you’re doing some science’: Primary students’ perspectives of their involvement in the MyScience initiative” in the Research in Science Education journal, examines feedback gathered in interviews with 27 students.

As the recent paper demonstrates, all 27 students reported improvements to their understanding and views of what it meant to “do science”.

In discussing the paper, Dr Forbes said the students’ unprompted comments highlight that the involvement of skilled and experienced science practitioners who “come into schools and live and breathe and walk the talk of science” is fundamental to the model’s success.

“The students’ comments showed that the model enabled them to experience a different way of being taught and a different way to learn,” Dr Forbes said. “For all interviewed students, this appeared to transform their views of what it means to be doing real science, as practised by scientists.

“It’s like going into an art gallery and having the artists explain what they do and why, then having them help you as you try the same techniques yourself. Students learn through participation, rather than the traditional top-down ‘learning through acquisition’ method.

“Their comments also showed they were developing critical thinking skills of great value not just to their study of science but to their studies throughout their education at secondary school and beyond.”

Dr Forbes said that over the decade since MyScience was introduced, her research has shown that student-mentor interactions and related classroom activities fostered the development of a “community of science” in which students, teachers and mentors learned from each other during their investigations. In one project, several professional astronomers supported students with their investigations into questions such as ‘What is the effect of light colour on shallot growth?’ and ‘What is the effect of a rocket launch trajectory on the distance covered?’

“Primary teachers tend to be generalists – exceptional at understanding children but often lacking, or feeling they lack in-depth science discipline knowledge,” Dr Forbes said. “But once they feel confident, they become more passionate about teaching science, and it cascades through to their students.

“Our research with teachers and students shows they benefit from the experience of working with real, active scientists, and that the scientists themselves also benefit from having to think about and explain scientific concepts and processes in a clear, step-by-step approach.”

Dr Forbes said that while most experts were working in science-based research institutions and businesses, the pool of Scientist Mentors could include university students and retired science professionals.

“The experts could include university STEM students, who while teaching the young students would demonstrate their fascination with science and the career paths available through studying science, and even senior secondary students,” she said. “Science graduates undertaking further study to become teachers could benefit from this type of on-the-job practice.

“Retirees would be another source of invaluable expertise.”

Dr Forbes said it was clear the model could also be expanded into other areas of the curriculum.

“With the right support and input from suitable community experts, the ‘communities of practice’ model could work to increase student engagement in subjects such as history, geography or mathematics,” she said.

 Dr Anne Forbes and Professor Keith Skamp, (2017) “’You actually feel like you’re doing some science’: Primary students’ perspectives of their involvement in the MyScience initiative”, Research in Science Education journal.

For more information or an interview, contact Dr Anne Forbes at Macquarie University on 0438 692 106 or +61 2 9850 8038 or at anne.forbes@mq.edu.auAlso available for interview are Dr Cameron Webb, a scientist who mentored for the program (+61 410 490 193, Cameron.Webb@health.nsw.gov.au), and Ms Sally Biskupic, a teacher 

Period6 Nov 2017

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