School Improvement Episode 30: STEM professionals in schools

Thanks for downloading this episode in our School Improvement series. From Teacher magazine, I’m Dominique Russell.

We’re taking you to Tasmania in today’s episode, where staff at Bowen Road Primary School have been working with a local electrical engineer for a few years now to teach students about coding.

The partnership came about through the CSIRO’s STEM Professionals in Schools program, which invites STEM industry professionals from across the country to volunteer in schools to share their expertise and real-world perspectives with students.

I’m joined in this episode by the electrical engineer volunteering at Bowen Road Primary School, Robbie Bell, from Hydro Tasmania, which is Australia’s largest generator of renewable energy. Lynne Hanlon, the educator at Bowen Road Primary School who facilitated this partnership, also joins us to offer her perspective. Let’s jump in.

Dominique Russell: I thought it would be a good idea just to begin things, to get a bit of an idea of both of your roles at the moment – so, Robbie, yourself as an electrical engineer and Lynne, as an educator – and then also how your involvement in the STEM Professionals in Schools program came about? So, could we start off with you Lynne?

Lynne Hanlon: I’m a teacher of about 40 years’ experience and I’m now currently at Bowen Road Primary School and in 2018 I saw an advertisement in an education email about the scientists in schools program and thought it would be a great opportunity for our school. So at that time my role was as a support teacher, but now I’ve actually gone on and I hold a senior staff role and a primary maths coach role. So I really value maths and science and I really am really keen to push the value of maths and science here at Bowen Road Primary School.

DR: And Robbie?

Robbie Bell: Yes, so I’m an electrical engineer. I work as a design engineer … so that’s within projects, so I’m always project focused. I work doing design implementation, and with that work it sees me routinely doing coding – so programming of control systems and also some graphics work and other types of things for interface displays. I do that almost exclusively these days on hydropower generators; and that facilitates remote control of those machines and also remote monitoring. That’s what sort of keeps me busy.

I came to the program, the CSIRO STEM Professionals in Schools, similar to Lynne, in that my organisation that I work for encourages volunteering. And so I volunteer in a number of different ways, and so one day, there was an email internally just promoting the program if anybody was interested.

DR: And Lynne could you tell me a little bit more then about your school context?

LH: So our school has about 300 students from Kindergarten to Grade 6. We’re in the northern suburbs of Hobart, but we draw our students from a really diverse range of backgrounds and, in particular, we’ve got quite a significant number of students that have got a English as an additional language background that may have come here as refugees. So we’ve got a really diverse learning community, which is a really powerful thing for our school to have.

And we also have a whole lot of teachers that are in their first five years of their teaching career. And so I think that, you know, part of this CSIRO STEM Professionals in Schools program, it’s a really good link for those teachers to see the links between industry and education. And so I think, for them, for our significant number of beginning teachers, it’s really worthwhile project for them in that respect as well.

… So Robbie’s been coming to us for about three years, or it’s going into our third year now. And so when he comes he works with one class over several weeks and then we change to a different class. And so he has worked with … we find that most of the input, the very valuable input that Robbie can have, is most suitable for our primary aged students, particularly for kids in maybe Grades 4, 5 and 6. So Robbie hasn’t worked with our younger students – but that was a decision we made here at the school – but he’s definitely worked with those beginning career teachers in our primary section.

DR: Fantastic. And so I know you’ve already done some really interesting work with students on coding, in particular, as part of this partnership. So, can you tell me a bit more about how both of you are showing students that coding and maths and engineering are already a really big part of their day-to-day lives and their lives outside of school in a really unique way?

LH: So, in the Australian Curriculum there is part of the curriculum called Digital Technologies. And when I first met Robbie (because I think it’s really important that we have a face-to-face meeting with our partner scientists) I shared with him the Digital Technologies Curriculum and he has read that and has now become familiar with it, and I think that’s really important so that there’s the links with the curriculum.

And also I think the other thing for us is that a lot of our students love coding, but at the moment (or prior to Robbie coming) they considered coding was a bit more of a fun thing that you did, you did it at home, there were these gamers that developed games, and it was just a coding leisure type activity. And what Robbie’s been able to do is to show the students that coding is really important in industry and the way that he uses coding too in his every day work. So I think it’s really shown the kids that ‘yes, I can love coding and it can lead to a career’. So I think that’s where it’s been really valuable.

RB: I suppose a few things leading into that. It’s helpful with Bowen Road that I have some connections in the community there that they identified to help. So Bowen Road Primary School is relatively close to a large Hobart employer that I worked with, that quite a range of them [the students] are familiar with, so that was good to make those types of connections. Rather than just coming in cold, I was able to identify with working in a place that a lot of them knew, or who had parents or whatever involved in.

I suppose what I started off with was a career narrative. That was an important thing that Lynne wanted, was during this process, talking about career and what I’d done over time, because I haven’t always been an engineer. I started as an apprentice electrician, progressed through, and at the time when I was at this local employer that these people knew, I had done a paraprofessional qualification and also returned to university to study engineering.

So that was, that’s one aspect that we try to talk to them about, is that just because you leave school and do something, doesn’t mean you have to or you will do it forever – there are options that you can move and progress. So that was an important part of the aspect that Lynne wanted with the students that I was talking to, was not only just about coding, but about narrative.

LH: So this career narrative is something that we really value at Bowen Road and we thought that the students needed to hear the story. It also meant that they got an opportunity to meet Robbie as a person. And we always do that at the first session, so every time he takes a class for that block that he has them over a few weeks, the first session we always do this career narrative. And I think it allows the students to see Robbie as a real person who has got a journey in his career, and he also knows that he is going to have more opportunities even still coming up. So I think it’s really also part of setting the scene for his relationship building with the students.

RB: The next area in terms of coding to demonstrate to the students in the class is, I’d ask, you know, what type of jobs or interest do their parents have? And then just start looking at opportunities where all of these jobs potentially can be coders as well. And we talk about how engineers have to code, but doctors have to be able to code, accountants need to be able to code, electricians need to be able to code.

Or when I say ‘need’ it’s perhaps more a case of, a whole lot of, range of jobs have opportunities to code. Some people won’t take those opportunities and move in that direction and others can. You know, for example, you think about scientists generate codes for MRI machines, but the medical people also have to work on that and get it together and they’re coding in those ways as well.

Accountants can just do marvellous coding things with Excel that I just don’t want to go near. But you see, so it’s trying to broaden their horizon of ‘coding’ and not just thinking of games or not just thinking of somebody who codes a computer. There are coding aspects in lots of jobs, if people want to look for those opportunities within those jobs.

LH: Our Tasmanian Department of Education has four core values, and one of them is Aspiration. And I think that this program really fits with that, because we would have a lot of students that if I went up to them and said, you know, ‘what career or what job would you like to do when you leave school?’ We would probably have from a lot of them, not from all of them, but a lot of them, a very limited idea of what different careers would be available to them.

And so I think that having people like Robbie come into our school is really valuable for students because it enables them to see that, first of all there is a diverse career pathway that Robbie speaks to them about, but also that you can have a passion and your passion can actually end up being a career as well in some ways. And so I really think it fits with that value of aspiration.

RB: One other thing I have done is, we talked about the technologies, or the Digital Technologies Curriculum. As some background I had undertaken the [the University of Adelaide], out of their education centres, a MOOC. So, you know, one of these massive online courses that they present on F-6 Foundations of digital technology. So that’s looking at the curriculum and just looking at aspects of it about, you know, a range of data and computational thinking.

LH: And our staff here at Bowen Road have done the same MOOC as well, so when Robbie talks to the teachers about it as well, then they’ve got that in common as well.

RB: In terms of actually showing or, you know, engaging with coding, I can’t say I do anything unique. Partially because I’ve not seen any other programs of coding by someone coming in, so I don’t know, but I would more think about it, is looking under breaking structures down so that they can see the simple elements.

And then, for example, we base it on Scratch, which is a standard project put forward for educational learning. It’s free to everybody. And so it’s more about building blocks, looking at doing one thing and then asking them (the students) how we could modify it or to add something. And then when they’ve got that working, add something else.

And that’s still using the Scratch tutorial stuff that they publish, which is great. And you know, so it’s looking at simple steps – do one thing and then add something to it, and then build it up over time so that it’s doing something a lot more than when we originally started; and they could see they could see how you can build on things independently.

LH: We’ve got a computer lab here at Bowen Road Primary School so when Robbie comes, he usually takes the first session in the classroom where he does the career narrative and talks to the students about a whole lot of things that he’s already mentioned, but then in the next sessions that he comes back, we usually book the computer lab. And then we’ve got a big TV screen etcetera in the computer lab and then the students can log on, and then Robbie uses his expertise to help the students undertake a project that Robbie’s planned for them to do.

… So Robbie makes himself available on a fortnightly basis and he comes in for two hours at a time. We work around his work commitments. So, sometimes he has to be away from Hobart with his work, so Robbie and I email about that and we set it all up and set the dates up etcetera. But usually each class would have about three to four sessions, maybe five, depending on the term and Robbie’s availability. And so when he comes they have two hours at a time, times four or five sessions, so eight to 10 hours in total for most classes.

DR: Great, that’s definitely a significant amount of time. And so would it be right to say – just with your discussion there about the projects on Scratch, Robbie – would it be right to say that, you know, the classrooms of students go in having not really undertaken use of a program like that before, and then when they leave, they have quite a sophisticated knowledge of it? Are you working on Scratch with each session and building on that knowledge, like you say? Is that how it’s working?

RB: That’s correct. It’s interesting though that clearly there is a subgroup of students that it’s nothing new. They’ve done it elsewhere, they’ve either done it at home or done a coding camp during holidays, or those type of things. There are others who are completely new to it. And it is interesting, from my perspective, just not being a teacher or being around teaching to see how, you know, some students take to it, and some struggle with it.

It’s interesting, I had seen one student that for a period did struggle, but suddenly something tweaked and off they went. I wouldn’t say at the end of it though they’ve got a sophisticated idea of what they’re doing … they have some concepts that they can recognise and use and build on if they wish to.

Certainly they come out at the end of the time at a range of levels, a range of abilities. And they can pursue it however they want afterwards because while in the computer lab they’re working on provided IT and using school IDs, you know, I encourage them, certainly inform them, that they can go home and do exactly the same thing on a laptop at home and browse. And certainly some do.

DR: Can you talk me through some of the behind the scenes work of what you’ve done to actually make this program run so well?

LH: So there is obviously a person who runs the CSIRO STEM Professionals in Schools Program. So when we first expressed an interest they contacted us to find out about our school context and to find out what we were interested in doing. And then their role is to find us a partner scientist/engineer. So they then proceeded to – obviously as Robbie said he saw the email and expressed an interest in volunteering for this program.

And then we basically get given Robbie’s email – and so then what I did, and we had another scientist in the school prior to Robbie, so we did exactly the same process, we invited him to come into school so we could have a face-to-face meeting. And I think that that’s a really crucial step in the partnership. So Robbie came in, we had a chat about our school, about how we could fit in with Robbie’s – so we had to work out with Robbie’s commitments and our school timetabling, how much we could work together. But I think that face-to-face meeting is really critical because then we get to learn about Robbie’s strengths and his interests and where we think that we can [get] most value from this partnership.

And then after that, most of our communication’s been done by email, but it’s really easy because now I feel that I can just send off a quick email to Robbie. He knows me, I know him, he can quickly reply and say ‘yes that works, Lynne’, ‘no, it doesn’t work, Lynne’, you know, whatever. And then when Robbie comes to school on the days that I’m here, I often just say, ‘how are you?’, ‘how’s it going?’ and things like that.

But often once we’ve got it up and running and Robbie is familiar with the school environment, he signs in at the office, he knows where the computer lab is, we put it on our information that Robbie’s here today, and all of that sort of stuff. So it all just is a matter of communication. But I do believe that, for us, the crucial step for us was that face-to-face meeting at the beginning and then working out how we can best make value out of this program. Would you agree Robbie?

RB: Yeah I would.

DR: What are your long-term goals for students with this program for improving student learning for the students at your school, Lynne?

LH: So I think – I’ve just started this conversation with Robbie in the last couple of days again. Because we’ve had Robbie now for two going on to three years, that most of our students have actually undertaken the initial work that Robbie did where he matched it to the Digital Technologies curriculum and to his career narrative. And Robbie’s now put his thinking cap on and is trying to come up with something different that he can do so we can maintain this partnership with Robbie. Because the students, you know, we can keep building on the Scratch and the coding and all those sorts of things, but I’m hopeful that Robbie’s got another string to his bow, or many strings to his bow, that he can come up with something that he thinks that will continue to build on our partnership.

So I think that’s part of the challenge, is working out, you know, what can we do to sustain the students’ interests, what we can do to exchange Robbie’s interest – like Robbie’s only going to want to be involved if he’s finding it worthwhile, if his volunteering is actually fulfilling, you know, that he’s actually feeling valued.

So I think, Robbie, it’s a bit about finding out something else that Robbie can do.

RB: To that end, you know it’s case of I think, once they’ve done that initial work, it’s then perhaps more into that ongoing area, but still within that Digital Technologies framework.

You know, for example, in there there’s information, or discussion, about the collection of data and holding that and looking at it, but still wanting to embrace some coding within Scratch. So I’m sort of currently thinking about and looking at a group of students who know how to use Scratch at a basic level, but now we actually want to bring something into Scratch from the outside world and do something with it.

So that could simply be bring in a temperature, in terms of, you would think about a science background or the collection of data, bring in a temperature and hold them and just create a really simple bar graph of it over time. And then looking at, well, what does the data mean? How is it represented? How is it stored?

Now I’m talking here and it’s sort of a Grade 5/6 level of things, but certainly within that F-6 curriculum, it talks about binary and binary numbers and how things are represented within binary numbers. And I have just started dabbling with that last year.

We also in that eight hours also introduced the concept of binary and different ways of, you know, there are different number systems for maths; and a computer really uses all of those rules that are, the whole time it’s working, and how it’s representing a number and …

LH: So we’ve just – Robbie’s not available until a couple weeks into next Term, so we’ve got probably four or five weeks for Robbie and I to work out what he thinks he can build on and what he’s already done, because he’s actually now basically worked with every primary student over the last couple of years, and then we had a bit of impact from COVID last year. So this is just a matter of really, but Robbie’s really aware of what the kids’ skill level is and their interests and so I’m feeling really confident that we can work something out that’s going to match Robbie’s skills with what our students can benefit from.

DR: Yeah it’s great to hear that you come from that challenge at such a collaborative perspective. Like, you’re really bringing each other’s expertise to the table and working things out together for where you’re going to take the next step forward. Is that really important to not have one of you – in terms of it being a partnership as it is – to not have one of you say, ‘right, this is what we’re going to do next’. To really approach it from a collaborative perspective?

RB: It certainly is from my point of view in that I can do a whole range of things but I need the perspective of ‘this has got to be taught’ or what are we trying to teach? What are we trying to achieve? So, if we know what we are trying to achieve then I can look at which areas I can go in.

Because, the feedback on the sessions is important, but also, you know, in that communications path of it as well, where do we want to head long term? Because otherwise you’re just stuck in a loop that’s pretty short. And, you know, it’s about wanting to build on things over time.

DR: What kind of feedback have the students been giving you?

LH: I think that it’s really important that the students have somebody that they believe knows what they are talking about. And so I think that’s been really valuable for them when they ran into a problem in the lab and they need some support then they know that Robbie will be able to help them or problem solve with them or suggest something to get them to trigger something to actually get it to work. And so, I think that the kids have really enjoyed having him being able to help them problem solve, to teach them some skills that they really value. And so I think that the feedback’s been really positive.

RB: I think from my perspective, I don’t necessarily get a lot of feedback from students in terms of seeking feedback and surveys at the end and those types of things. But I did have a couple of experiences late last year after returning, you know, having not been there for some time with COVID. It was interesting to see just the sheer delight of a couple of students near the end of really nailing something well that they thought from the beginning they weren’t going to get.

And you know, in just that building block type of format where I’d ask them to do one thing and then another thing and another thing, and then the nailing something really well. And you could see that they really enjoyed being able to get it right.

LH: And as an educator, that’s what we really value too, is when we can see that this child has really grasped something that they were struggling with. So I think it’s really nice to know that we can actually see those students see those lightbulb moments.

… But I do think communication is the thing because Robbie’s busy, we’re busy, and so it’s really just a matter of trying working out when Robbie’s available, be understanding if Robbie suddenly says ‘no I’ve got to go away up to the central highlands for a hydro for a few weeks’, then we just work around it. And I think that’s the really important thing to understand, that Robbie’s flexible, we try to be flexible, and we just try to make it work.

That’s all for this episode, thanks for listening. If you found this topic interesting, you might want to catch up on a special podcast episode from our archives. I spoke with Australia’s then Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel on his research report looking at STEM industry school partnerships. Here’s a snippet of what he had to say in that podcast:

To get a good STEM education, students need deep discipline knowledge. In Chemistry or Physics, or it could be Digital Technologies. But whatever they're learning, that knowledge has to be deep. The students need to be proficient users of technology. In school and ultimately in whatever careers they might adopt. We are using technology as props to amplify our capabilities.

… And another important aspect of a contemporary STEM education is a deep understanding for and respect of the social impact of these technologies. It's the workforce opportunities, of course, but it's the impact of what technology does to the way people live, to the way people interact, and to everything in our society.

You’ll be able to find the full episode at our website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

An important part of Robbie Bell’s work at Bowen Road Primary school is sharing the story of his career with students to address misconceptions about careers involving coding.

When was the last time you invited students to share their ideas about careers in STEM? What misconceptions did they have? How will you address these?