The second day of our STEM X Academy program was absolutely jam packed and mentally taxing in the extreme, but I learned so damn much and had a great time.
Vic really wasn’t kidding when he said to pace ourselves. By mid-afternoon of our second day our brains were dripping out of our heads, with no rest in sight. No use in complaining though, we certainly were getting the most out of our experience and reminded ourselves of what it was like to be the student!
Our first stop for the day was a live link with the CSIRO’s RV Investigator, a state of the art research vessel. It allows scientists to conduct oceanographic, biological, atmospheric, and geoscience research from the northern tropics right down to Antarctica.
We linked in as they were making last minute preparations for their current 51 day expedition – going down to explore the Totten Glacier in Antarctica. We were given a run down of the ship by the Communications person on board, who described it as a ‘multidisciplinary, purpose built, super science ship’! He was even able to take us on a little tour of the ship and show us some Tasmanian sunshine outside.
It really does seem like a fantastic research vessel, with plenty of recreational space to break up the incredible amount of scientific equipment. They are even able to take on shipping container labs out on deck, which can be custom designed for the needs of the scientists at the time. Research is carried out 24 hours a day while they are at sea, making the most of the journeys and collecting as much data as possible to analyse upon return. They take slightly different paths any time they travel anywhere so that they can map different sections of the ocean and ocean floor as they go, creating an ever-more complete map of the areas around our country.
60 people can be accommodated on board, including 20 ship crew, 40 scientists and their students, and excitingly even a teacher or two. They in the process of launching an Educator on Board program to increase exposure to teachers and their students. It sounds like a great program, so stay tuned and I’ll update as more information is released!
It was cool to learn about this Australian floating research facility, a good reminder to us all that scientists don’t just work in a lab with lab coats on.
Researcher Round Robin
This was one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of our week. We were give time for a round robin with a group of researchers from varies fields to talk with them about their current research and how we can link that to the classroom. We only had time to talk with 4 researchers each, in small groups for 45mins per round. It easily could have been an all day activity, giving us the time to talk to all of the researchers, but I’m not too sure how our poor little brains would have coped!
My first session was with Allen Rodrigo, a computational evolutionary biologist with interests in phylogenetic reconstruction, statistical bioinformatics and evolutionary modelling. He gave us a basic run down of evolution (a topic I absolutely love teaching), and how it doesn’t need to be taken in a historical sense. We should be showcasing to the students how evolution is happening on a day to day basis in medicine, particularly with bacteria and viruses (antibiotic resistance is evolution). He then gave some of his own ideas for how to teach it in the classroom in a hands on way. I absolutely love the idea of using scissors paper rock – an ideal I’ll develop properly when I have time and will share with you all! We also discussed making a game with coloured pegs and die to simulate evolution of small and large populations. Two hands-on activities, a knowledge update (3 pages of notes to be exact), and contact with a practising researcher all in 45 mins – what a great start!
We then had a break for morning tea (cake time), and we were quick to compare what we had learnt, and who we were with next.
My second researcher was Ben Long, with areas of expertise in plant physiology, microbial ecology, enzymes, analytical biochemistry, and biochemistry and cell biology. He had a slightly different approach for us, getting stuck right into an explanation of how to make algae balls. This is an activity you can easily do in the classroom to demonstrate photosynthesis, and is ideal for students to use as a base for their own experimental investigations. You can buy kits online or through some science equipment suppliers. It was great to spend some time with a plant scientist – that is my own background, and listening to him discuss his research and show us new ways to present it almost made me want to be back in the lab!
Funnily enough, we were interrupted during this session by a reporter from WIN News, who was recording a segment on the STEM X Academy program. You can view the segment here. I must admit, the part that they chose to use from Dr Ben annoyed me – he says that “those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers”. I hate this saying with an absolute passion – it degrades teachers and makes them look like incompetent professionals who ‘couldn’t do anything better than teaching’. The teachers I know all went into this profession by choice, not because they couldn’t get a job anywhere else. The best teachers are the ones who know their subjects very well, and how better to know your subject than to work in the industry! I myself have worked in a few science labs over the years, and have come into teaching because I realised that was where my passion lies. Anyway, rant over (I discuss this issue more in a previous post ‘Just a Teacher‘).
Third up for me was Jane Sexton, the leader of the Risk Analysis Methods Section of Geosciences Australia. Her team work on things like developing open source software for modelling the impacts of natural disasters, and we talked specifically about tsunamis and their impact on the coastlines. I learned more about tsunamis from her in the 10mins she spent describing them than I had ever known, and I feel much better able to teach that small topic from this one conversation! She gave us a heap of online resources to use with our classes, and I plan to use them if I teach this topic this year – check out their website. I loved the fact that she is an Australian scientist who works with computer modelling – a completely different side of science that is not often described in the classroom. It’s also great to have exposure to real-life examples of modelling, because students often downplay their importance and significance.
After this third rotation was our lunch break. Many of us were feeling the mental strain by now, mostly because the researchers were so engaging and we were having such in-depth conversations about their work and how to apply it to our classrooms.
We had time for one more rotation before we were off on the next activity, and I ended with Nicole Beard, who researches how intracellular calcium signaling pathways initiate muscle contraction. She also got straight into things after a short introduction – we had a choice of two activities, one where we would create a physical model of a nerve cell (an easily repeatable activity in class, with many ways to extend), and the other where we would be testing the impact of cold on heart rate. Of course we chose the heart rate test – we all wanted to try something new, and Nicole had stressed the safety factors associated, which of course got us more interested. Two members of the group had to sit quietly for a few minutes to get a base line of their data, then submerse their hands into water at 10°C for as long as they could before it got painful. One pulled her hand out after very short time, the other lasted longer. Their data was then recorded again over a period of time to see the effect – something we already do in class but with exercise instead of cold. We discussed the ways we could implement this activity in the classroom, with adjustments for safety controls and to limit the bravado that may come up as students try to out-do each other. I really like it as an alternative to the exercise activity, even just as a different option for the students to investigate.
We then had a little bit of time to ask any last questions, but we all wished we could go around and meet more of the researchers!
We were told that we would need to organise ourselves into groups and develop an activity or resource to present to the group on Friday. We would get time on Thursday to plan it, but the rest we’d have to sort out on our own because it was time to get straight on the bus for our next activity. It was pretty unfair to tell us what we need to do then not give us time right then to think and discuss. Some people formed into groups right away because they were near each other at the time and had similar ideas, but the rest of us were left floundering to think what topic we wanted to investigate and find others with the same interests, all in our own (very small amounts of) time. We really could have done with half an hour to sit, digest, talk and compare before being whisked away.
Next up was a trip to Parliament House! We started with a tour of the public areas, always a great tour. The most important aspect of our trip, however, was the role play we were able to participate in. The Parliamentary Education Office has LOADS of great resources which can easily be adaptable for any subject area – we did a role play of a senate enquiry looking into the possibility of providing 20% of Australia’s electrical needs through nuclear power in the next 10 years (something like that, I don’t remember the exact wording). You could choose any topic whatsoever to investigate, which makes it such a great activity. You could even stretch it out to be a way you present an entire unit!
We started out by coming up with our proposal, which is a fancy version of framing a question to investigate. Then we brainstormed all of the members of the public, companies, government groups, etc, that may be interested and want to have a say in the topic. These went up as a big list on the board, and as a group we decided on 4 who we would focus on for the activity, but you as the teacher could easily assign these yourself.
The group was then separated out; some to form the members of the Senate who would be hearing from and questioning the other groups; the rest divided into the groups who would be presenting their opinion on the matter at hand. I put my hand up to be Chair of the Senate Committee, which was great fun! The groups had to come up with their statement/position on the topic, and in the class this is the part where they would do research (as focused or wide as you like and have time/resources for). While they were doing that, us Senate were thinking of questions we’d like to ask the specific groups.
Then it was time for the enquiry. I had a script to read to introduce the session and each group, who took turns giving their information and being asked questions by us. When the time is up and all groups have presented their information, the Senate would go away and write a report in response.
It is definitely an activity I’d like to bring in to my lessons – it could be a single lesson activity with all the resources given and very focused, or it could go all the way down to the other extreme where students work in groups to do research and write reports for assessment.
It was great fun! But again a bit short on time. Before we knew it we were off on the bus again for another activity, this time up to the Mount Stromlo Observatory.
Mount Stromlo Observatory
By this point in the day we were well and truly tired. It had been a jam-packed day so far, and we still have two presentations, a tour or two, and dinner to go! Not that we weren’t keen, far from it, but a little bit of rest time would have been nice (yes, we’re all old nanas). So off we went into a lecture theatre, more than a few people picking up a cheeky beverage to take in with them.
First up was a talk from Dr Ben Greene, CEO of EOS (Electro Optic Systems), one of the programs major sponsors and a PhD in Applied Physics. Physics is one of my worst subjects in school, I really just don’t get some of it, so it’s always impressive for me to meet people who get it at such a deep level. To then take that knowledge and transform it into products, problem solvers, and companies is just beyond me. This company has a large reach, but our talk focused on their technology which uses lasers to help deal with the space junk program. They literally use lasers to blast space junk, how cool is that! So if you get students who are bored in maths or physics, remind them that they could do things like this!
I admit I was a little distracted by a large wasp that was flying around the room, so I tuned out of some of the talk, sorry Dr Greene! But for the most part I was simply blown away by the sophisticated way scientists are working to solve current and future problems. Problems that non-scientists probably don’t even know exist, let alone think about solving. That for me is such an important thing to get across to our students! Draw on that mystery, that drama, that innovation, and some students will feed off it like sugar.
At the end of the talk, some lucky people won a raffle to go and tour the facility. Alas I missed out, but it sounded so cool. Here are some pictures one of the lucky ones took.
While those people were off on their private tour, the rest of us finally had a little relaxation time. We were able to sit around the tables and talk about all of the things we’d learnt that day, and unwind a little before our bbq dinner. One of our group, Ken, even showcased some rocket designs he uses in his classes. They were so successful we almost hit an unsuspecting kangaroo!
We had our own site tour from the ever charismatic Dr Brad Tucker, who showed us where how the fire that ripped through Canberra all those years ago completely destroyed much of the infrastructure. We were able to walk through and look at some of the research facilities, including a machine called WOMBAT which imitates the properties of space. Perfect place to put some of our students…
We also got to explore the space where they actually build satellites (though we couldn’t go into the room itself – it’s a clean room which is controlled right down to the particle level). After watching the sun set over Canberra and the surrounds, we were back inside for dinner and another presentation. By this stage I was well and truly done, but I’ve heard Brad talk before and he is such a great presenter that I was drawn in in spite of myself.
Probably the most interesting (read: terrifying) part of his talk is when he starts discussing the end of the universe. That’s the type of content that really messes with my mind, so I love to replicate it for my students. If I feel small and insignificant, so should they! But it’s also empowering to realise how technology and scientific minds have lead us to all this incredible knowledge in the first place.
I guess that was the take home of all we did that day – science is freaking awesome. It allows us to observe, explore and explain ourselves and the world and universe in which we live. It is not just a series of random facts, it’s an investigative process – if you have enough interest in what you’re studying, you can discover so much and solve so many of our own problems.
Having researchers and professionals who seemed to really understand what it’s like to be an actual teacher was an absolutely invaluable experience. Each and every person we talked to was interested in our stories, and how we can link their expert knowledge to an activity for our students. How we can bring the real world of science into the classroom to alleviate the sometimes dry and boring fact learning that must take place before new exploration and innovation can occur.
We ended up running an hour over time that night, which meant a very subdued bus ride back to the ANU. I don’t think anyone stayed up later that night, our brains were all well and truly fried. What a day!
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.