Who am I?  

I’m a teacher from Sydney, Australia who teaches general science to years 7 to 10, and physics to years 11 and 12. Before becoming a teacher a few years ago, I was a structural engineer. Although I obviously left the engineering profession, I am a a strong advocate for promoting engineering with schools and the community,  as I feel that too often it is an invisible profession. Beyond the comedy of Howard on The Big Bang Theory and Dilbert comics, people rarely think about the effect that engineering has on their lives. Although the rise of technology has led to a larger focus on software engineering (indeed, that’s what Dilbert does), few people think much about the other branches of engineering which help them on a daily basis. I want student to see the connections between the science they learn in school and the real-world applications in fields like engineering.

What’s this blog all about?

Earlier in the year I applied for the NSW Premier’s Macquarie Capital Science Scholarship, proposing a month-long trip to the US to study innovative ways people are teaching science to engage student and improve student outcomes. Just over a month ago I found out, to my surprise, that I had won this scholarship and would thus be embarking on this study tour of the US in October 2012.

On this trip I will visit schools in San Diego, Phoenix, New York, Connetticut and Massachusets before attending the STEMtech conference in Kansas City. In each of these places I hope to learn more about four main approaches to teaching science: modeling instruction, integrated STEM teaching, project based learning, and embodied learning using physical, interactive games. For each of these, I will be asking the questions:

  1. How effectively does it engage students in science?
  2. How does it improve student outcomes in science?
  3. How could it be implemented within the existing curriculum and school structure in NSW?

This blog will serve as a record of my experiences whilst on this trip. This will include people I talk to, schools I visit, and things I learn along the way. Note this is not a formal report of my trip – these are informal reflections, thoughts and experiences I’d like to share. When I get back home I will be producing a more formal report to communicate what I’ve discovered, but this is an informal conversation about my journey.

How did I decide where to visit?

Since bring awarded this scholarship, a lot of people have asked me how I have worked out where to go and who to visit. Well, in short the answer is ‘the internet’ but in truth its a little more complicated than that. Basically, there were some ideas and approaches I was already aware of which were being implemented in the USA, and with research my planning went from there.

When I was planning this trip, I immediately knew that I’d love to learn more about Modeling Instruction, which is an approach I first discovered this through fnochese’s blog Action-Reaction (see his page on modeling here). Modeling is based around the idea of students developing their own conceptual models to explain phenomena (as scientists have been doing for eons) rather that telling them the models of others. Modeling intrigued me as soon as I heard about it – I had even made myself some budget whiteboards prior to this trip and attempted to implement sone aspects of modeling in my classroom. When planning this, I contacted fnochese and Arizona State University, where the approach was developed, and from there I’ve found a wide group of people to visit and speak to about this method.

The idea if STEM education is another topic close to my heart. As an engineer who entered education, I’ve always believed that the strong subject boundaries present in our education system are not reflective of the ways knowledge is used in the real world. This is particularly apparent in the area of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEM is a word and idea used a lot in the US and UK, however I have encountered little discussion of STEM teaching in Australia. Integrated STEM teaching is the idea that as these subjects are fundamentally connected in the real world, they should be taught in an integrated way. This can vary from replacing those subjects with a STEM subject or project, or adding a STEM project which runs alongside the traditional curriculum. Through research online I found the STEMtech conference in Kansas City in late October, and I also discovered some schools in New England that implement STEM-based curricula.

One specific way integrated teaching (including STEM teaching) can be implemented is through Project Based Learning, where students learn content through working on real-world projects. In researching this trip, I stumbled upon High Tech High in San Diego, which is a unique group of schools adopting a specific project based learning approach to education. Key to their model is connecting the activities in school with the adult world of the workplace, making their learning relevant and applicable to their future. In addition, the teachers work in interdisciplinary teams, crossing those faculty walls I dislike so much.

The final approach I am exploring is Embodied Learning. Although this is not a term I knew before this trip, I am always interested in ways for technology to measurably improve student learning. I use technology every day – however I strongly believe it is not the cure all for every problem in the classroom which it is sometimes thought to be. I always like to ask, ‘Is this actually improving on existing low-tech solutions?’ (Hence my love of the cheap, homemade whiteboards I made for my students earlier in the year. Truly interactive – no high technology required.) During my research I stumbled upon the SMALLab system online, which is an interactive, three dimensional, game-based approach to learning. When I saw it, I thought it could be an interesting, interactive and truly different way that technology could add to the learning experience. Embodied learning is the theory behind this system, the idea of learning through physical actions. I’m excited to see this system in action and find out how it helps students.

So what now?

Stay posted! I am sitting at Sydney Airport right now, about to embark on this journey and I will be regularly updating this blog wile I am away. So if you are interested in what I’m doing or any of the methods I’ve mentioned above, keep reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!


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