Congratulations to the winners of the Prime Ministers Award for Excellence in Science Teaching
Geoff McNamara (ACT), winner of the 2014 Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary School
Geoff's experiences with real-world science application during his pre-teaching career, combined with his own underwhelming experience as a high school science student, gave him a strong passion for making science both practical and relevant to his students. At Melrose High School in Canberra, Geoff (who is known to his students as Mr Mac) has created a hothouse of science learning—complete with a seismometer, GPS antenna, and weather station, each transmitting real-time data straight into the classroom. In addition, he coordinates regular visits from practising scientists, and science field trips.
For higher-achieving science students Geoff developed Academic Curriculum Extension (ACE) Science, which he has been piloting at Melrose High School since 2008. The extension program connects students with working scientists and engages them in a wide range of real-world science investigations. ACE Science has been so successful he is now offering it to other schools.
“We have so much talent in Australia in terms of science, engineering and technology, and I want the students to meet these people, and to show them that ‘this is what you could be doing in a few years’ time’,” says Geoff.
Meeting scientists is just one of the ways that Geoff gives his ACE Science students a feel for how science works in the real world: they also design their own experiments to verify known scientific phenomena. Outside the ACE Science program, Geoff has developed some novel ways to demonstrate to his students how scientific concepts are present all around them.
Geoff knows that most of his students won’t carry on to a career in science—even those who go through the ACE Science program. But he’s content about that.
“All I want is for them to take away some appreciation of what science is, and who practises it, and how central it is to modern life. That’s important to understand in any career.”
Several of his students have ended up in scientific pursuits. A growing number of Mr Mac’s alumni—some of whom are studying medicine, plant biology and teaching—have joined the ‘I was taught by Mr Mac’ Facebook group. The 180 group members share updates on their careers, their studies, and their passions for all things science.
To Geoff, this Prime Minister’s Prize award is helping to raise the profile of science teaching in Australia, which he says is underappreciated at times.
“It’s a recognition that what we are doing here in public education is important and is valued.”
Brian Schiller (SA), winner of the 2014 Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary School
From a young age, Brian’s love of his local environment got him wondering about how it all worked. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with biology. He wasn’t taught much science at his small primary school, but that only fuelled his desire to learn more about the environment around him.
For Brian’s students, Seacliff Primary School is a great place to do just that. On the school grounds there’s a frog pond, a butterfly garden and a koala walk that invite the students to ask questions, investigate and develop an understanding of the natural world. The school is also within walking distance of the local beach, where Brian takes his classes for excursions to investigate marine creatures and ecosystem health. And he enlists the help of experts in marine biology or Indigenous culture to guide the excursions—some of these experts also happen to be the parents of his students.
For Brian, the key to his teaching approach is creativity. He’s found creative ways to combine teaching languages and a range of other curriculum areas with science teaching—through getting the children to read, write and talk about science—while also encouraging his students to think creatively about scientific ideas.
One way that Brian gets his students talking and thinking about science is through his ‘community of enquiry ethics in science’ sessions. In these sessions the students pose science-based questions or scenarios to each other in teacher-free discussion.
“I sit back and listen to my Year Ones and Twos during our ‘community of enquiry’ sessions, and I realise that these seven- and eight-year-olds have all sorts of knowledge and ideas that I don’t have. Children today have such easy access to information from a variety of sources,” he says.
Brian sees this Prime Minister’s Prize award as recognition at the highest level, not only for him but for others, including his principal, colleagues and school parents, who have helped in his achievements at the school. He credits a large part of his success to the school’s principal, Mr Greg Miller, and deputy principal, Mr Scott Francis, for allowing him the “freedom to stretch the boundaries, to think outside the box, and to make a mess in the classroom”.
“Receiving this award is a huge honour, but my greatest reward has always been in working with the children themselves, witnessing them interacting in wonder with the world around them and fuelling their high level of creativity and imagination,” says Brian.