School Improvement Episode 43: Award-winning Science teachers on increasing participation and 2-ways learning

This podcast from Teacher magazine is supported by the QT Academy. Visit

Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher. I’m Dominique Russell.

If you’re a long time-listener of our podcast, you’ll know that each year, 2 winners are announced for the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching – one winner working in primary schools and one winner working in secondary schools.

The most recent winners were announced in late 2022 and they are George Pantazis from Marble Bar Primary School in remote Western Australia and Veena Nair, from Viewbank College in Melbourne.

In January this year just before the school year started, I caught up with George and Veena to hear more about the work they’ve been recognised for nationally, and the impact they’re having on student outcomes in their own school settings. First we’ll bring you my conversation with George and stay tuned for Veena’s story straight afterwards. Let’s jump in.

Dominique Russell: Thank you so much George for joining us on this podcast episode. To kick things off, can you tell me a bit about your background in education and also your most recent role at Marble Bar Primary School?

George Pantazis: Sure. First of all, thank you for having me. It's an honour and privilege to be a recipient of the Prime Minister's Prize for Science Teaching in Primary Schools. I began my career in education in 2010 when I actually migrated to Australia. I started as a volunteer Education Assistant and have been working with both remote and regional schools since.

My wife has been a teacher for nearly 30 years, and she's been my mentor from the beginning of my journey in education. She's helped me tremendously in achieving my dream of becoming a teacher.

My role at Marble Bar Primary School was a STEM coordinator. I led the integrated STEM program, combining CSIRO's 2-way Science program with emerging technologies such as virtual reality, drone aviation and First Nations Science and Art. In 2023, I will be relocating to Tjuntjuntjara Remote Community School where I will continue my work in STEM education.

So my passion is actually teaching STEM using emerging technologies whilst preserving the local first language culture and language. I'm excited, really, to move back to the Goldfields region in WA, because that is actually where my journey began in education. So it's really exciting.

DR: And so as we've mentioned, you've been recognised with the Prime Minister's Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools for the 2022 school year. So that was in recognition for the work that you've done at Marble Bar Primary School. Can you tell me a little bit about the school context there, what makes it unique and how big is the school?

GP: So there are approximately about, I'd say about 25 students at Marble Bar Primary School, 3 teachers, the principal, one Education Assistant, one AIEO [Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer]. So that's about 6 staff. What makes the school context unique is that we have a very receptive community and extremely talented students. So the fact that we're a small school, according to the student population, I believe it makes a significant difference there. As a small school, the relationship between students and teachers are more positive and supportive.

So basically, students receive greater support from the teachers and support staff there. And staff relationships are also strong and that plays a very important role in the education of students.

DR: And so a big part of the work that you have done at Marble Bar Primary School is integrating the 2-way STEM program which you introduced us to just before. You've implemented this and now you're also, I assume, taking it to this new region in WA, which is really exciting. Can you tell me a little bit about how you implemented it, give us a bit of an introduction to the program itself and how you were able to integrate it so successfully? Big question, I know.

GP: Sure. That's all right. It's a couple of points, it's fine. So CSIRO’s 2-ways Science program, what it does, it actually incorporates ideas and resources that are designed to assist schools to engage meaningfully with their communities and basically provide a strong cultural affirmation for their students.

Basically, the program allows the students to become the teacher. So the First Nations culture is taught by the students to the teachers. Our students teach us about the connection with the land, the flora and fauna, the seasons, and most importantly, their stories. That is the foundation for their culture, their dream time source, so it's very important that we actually acknowledge that.

So I implemented the program through emerging technologies made available by our IT external partner. The consultative process was a combination of educational, technical and community collaboration.

So we collaborated with community Elders and First Nations staff to obtain permission for the projects and also have them as our cultural advisors. An integral part of the work is combining emerging technologies with 2-ways Science. That's very important. As STEM coordinator – so I led the STEM program there with my students and they also played a role as cultural advisors assisting in the process.

What has been done at Marble Bar Primary School is actually a first. Combining 2-ways Science, so First Nations cultural knowledge and emerging technologies, and STEM, has never been attempted.

So as you can see, or as you've heard, it has had phenomenal success in the past 3 years. The projects to come out of the school, Marble Bar, are culturally responsive, and our students have demonstrated their creativity using 21st Century technologies. The students were excited at the idea of having their culture showcased globally.

So in the past 2 years, the school has won 12 awards, so that includes state awards, national and international. That's an extraordinary achievement considering the size of the school. Staff and students at the school also were excited to participate in the projects.

One of the things that was very significant here was there was 100% engagement for all students involved in a project. Staff also felt that this pathway for the students would result in improving their learning outcomes. All stakeholders were on board from the very beginning.

Students were more engaged in STEM as the projects worked at a cross-curricular level, including subjects such as HASS, LOTE, Literacy, Numeracy, the Arts, 2-ways Science (that we discussed) and Digital and Design Technology. So it has had an amazing impact at Marble Bar Primary School. And, you know, as a small school, small remote school, to be recognised with 12 awards in the past 2 years. That's an amazing accomplishment.

… The journey began in 2020, so Term 1 of 2020. The first day we had a staff development day, we were actually introduced to VR. I saw the potential straight away and I had a discussion with my principal and by Term 2, the end of Term 2 (if I remember correctly) we actually purchased the first VR headsets. So in Term 3 I actually started the first project which was the First Nations Digital Seasonal Calendar.

What that did was put Marble Bar on the map. So we had the students create a 2-dimensional canvas of all the seasons in the local region. And then through VR, by using the application called Tilt Brush, the students digitally painted that canvas and the calendar itself and it has become the only one of its kind in WA and all of their work done through VR, the walkthrough gallery, the Digital Seasonal Calendar and whatever else they've had up until now, is NFT, so they actually copyright it and protect it. So we're actually the first ones to actually do this in school as well, and with the walkthrough gallery.

DR: And something that we like to ask the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science Teaching recipients when we interview them is if they can share a favourite learning activity that they led with students in the last school year. Is there one that you'd like to share with us?

GP: Yeah, my favourite learning activity actually was working alongside with the students to share the local stories to help preserve the local language of the East Pilbara, Marble Bar. It's called ‘Nyamal’. So this was added to the language preservation centre that we have in VR.

So we have basically, 3 actual worlds in Marble Bar using the Unity platform. So we have the Digital Seasonal Calendar, the walkthrough gallery, which depicts their artwork of their Australian animals and First Nations art, and we have the Language Preservation Centre, so by far the language preservation centre is my favourite.

It was amazing how the Elders, the students and First Nations staff were sharing their stories and culture with me. It's also an honour and privilege to actually hear stories from the oldest living culture from the world.

Learning from them has given me a new perspective on their culture, has made me a more effective teacher and has made me realise that we have to acknowledge, respect and celebrate First Nations culture as it is the oldest continuous living culture of the world, there's so much we can learn from the First Nations people. And to be truly honest I'm very proud to be the first teacher to combine First Nations culture with STEM.

So that was and is my favourite and I will be taking this to my new school in the Goldfields region.

DR: So the last question that I have for you, George, is just looking forward to this new 2023 school year. You're obviously moving to a brand-new school context. Is there anything, any other plans in the pipeline for this upcoming year that we haven't already spoken about for this new role that you're taking on?

GP: So, yes, as you mentioned, I'm going to be going to new school. So it’s Tjuntjuntjara Remote Community School, that's the plan for the 2023 school year. I'm going to be developing the first, along with our external IT partner, first culturally appropriate First Nations educational video game as a cross-curricular educational resource for First Nations students using the language of the local region, topographical mapping of the area, and we hope to incorporate local stories from that region itself as basis for the video game and hopefully it won't be limited just to one specific First Nations language.

Hopefully we can incorporate it, do that for other Indigenous languages. Also the reason that Language Preservation Centre was created in Marble Bar was because Nyamal is a critically endangered language. It has less than 10 speakers in the world. And that is why I've decided to actually start that language centre with the students and with the community. So that is the big news that I have for 2023. So video game lookout for it.

… Well, the most important that I think I just want to talk about is, as teachers, because there are a lot of teachers going out remote and first time rural. So the most important thing you can do as a teacher is to learn from your students. Definitely collaborate with the local community. Respect, listen to the Elders regarding what they want for their children, what it is about their culture. And just have a yarn. Listen. Be very, very receptive to that because it's their communities.

We're visitors. We have basically, you know, we have an expiry date. We’re there for 3 years, maybe 4 years, that's about it. It's their community, it's their schools, it's their student, it's their kids getting an education. So the more, I also believe, basically, that the more the First Nations culture and language should be included in the Australian curriculum through cross-curricular links.

First Nations culture and language is a must. We have to acknowledge it. They are the Indigenous people of the land. We need to have more of the language and the culture embedded into the Australian curriculum. That is something that needs to be done.

Coming up, we’ll hear from Veena Nair, the 2022 winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in [Secondary] Teaching, who will explain how she’s worked to improve participation in STEAM subjects at Viewbank College. First though, here’s a quick message from our sponsor.

Teachers do their best for their students, but being a teacher can be really tough. QT Academy professional development provides a powerful way for teachers to form a bond with other teachers, to learn from each other and strengthen their practice for better student engagement and academic results. QT Academy. Empowering teachers to empower each other. Visit

Dominique Russell: Thank you again Veena for being able to join us on this podcast episode. It's great to be able to chat with you and find out more about the fantastic work that you're doing. I thought to kick things off, it would be great to just get a bit of an understanding about your background in education and also your current role at Viewbank College.

Veena Nair: Before I begin, let me thank you for this great opportunity for allowing me to come on your program and sharing my insights and my experiences.

So back to your question. My insights and my background in education – so I come from a family of educators, really, and my parents both were educators. And before them, few generations, we had educators in our family. So I think I've got it in my DNA. I can't escape it.

So I actually decided, I don’t want to get into education because I saw my parents and I said ‘no’. But the way I started – I started actually going into coding and then installing some computers in low-SES schools in Mumbai and started teaching students coding using basic. Basic was the language long, long back ago.

And the students started giving me feedback saying that, ‘you really explained well, and you should go into teaching’ and then at the same time, I was encouraged by my parents, by my in-laws who said, ‘you should try this’. So after a good gap after my graduation, I went back to Uni and I did my BEd [Bachelor of Education].

And that's how I got into education. And it was really something that really resonated with me immediately. Not only because I could explore, along with the students, these great new things, but I saw it as an opportunity to create change and create an impact. And that is where it still sits with me.

DR: And so what's your current role at Viewbank College and can you also tell me a little bit about the school context there?

VN: So Viewbank College is a school in the north-eastern side of Melbourne. We have a strength of about 1500 students, so it is a relatively big school – and about 150 staff.

When I joined the school, Viewbank College was looking for developing STEM (or STEAM) and I was grateful that I got this opportunity to do that and the trust that they put into me to develop the STEAM program at Viewbank College.

The students, we come from a relatively good family setups. Of course, every school has their challenges and things, but we are a school that prides ourselves in innovation, in taking on challenges and taking risks and looking at team building in different ways. So that really was that was a good grounding for me to start off on.

DR: Wonderful. And so you've obviously been recognised with the Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools, which is so exciting. You were really recognised for increasing your students’ opportunities for real world learning and also industry connections. So can you share with our listeners what you've done and what you've introduced to achieve those outcomes?

VN: So what we did, when I joined Viewbank College, as I said, they were looking at developing the STEAM program. So every school offers Science and Maths and Technologies as individual subjects, but very often we ignore the integration of these.

And what I always wanted to do, and have done in my previous schools as well, is offer that integration and inviting place in curriculum for students to take risks and learn that it's okay to fail and learn from that.

So you create that safe environment around it and then and students then just thrive. So when we started the STEAM program, rather the electives in STEAM (and I'll touch base on that in a minute) we had about 8 students going in for Engineering in the last 4 or 5 years, that number has gone to almost 40 to 50 students.

And the only reason for that is that students can now experience what Engineering is in a safe and in a very supportive way, and in a fun way. Most importantly, if you don't have fun, you don't enjoy it.

The way we went about it was, we started with a very easy subject which was not anywhere called Engineering, or STEAM or anything. We use 3D printers and we just called it Elective 3D Designing and Printing. So it was nowhere remotely connected to anything, you know, because students already have developed some perceptions that they are not good at Science, or not good at Maths or they don't like either one of them, or Technology. And so when you have a subject which does not tell you anything about it in its name, it's a safe place to come.

But essentially what we did through that subject was integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Art. And through that now in the last 6 years, we have been able to get almost 600 students experience 3D printing and Engineering in different ways and create and become solution-focused.

So it was as simple as that. And from that in Year 9, went on to, in Year 10, to create what is Emerging Technologies. Again a very similar method but – and then the pathway into VCE Systems Engineering – which is my favourite subject and I absolutely love it. So that is where we went.

The other thing that worked for us was use of certain things which are already there. People have already created these tools. For example, the Science Talent Search. So we created that. What I did was I started, really as a co-curricular activity, really pushing for this Science Talent Search.

And for the last 2 years, we've been getting this Hugh McKnight Award for the maximum number of entries from a school. So it has taken a little bit of a progression, but it takes some time to establish some new projects and we are happy that it has taken off.

Regarding the industry connections – I’ve always felt right from day 1, because I was and I started as a business developer in India, and I always felt that there is a need for industry to connect with schools.

Our schools already, you know, are disconnected. They're just left alone, and they shouldn't be. We are a community. We are giving education to enable students to become part of this wide world and communities. And so we must encourage community to come to the school and have partnerships. So the first thing that we started doing was inviting a lot of industry experts to come and give talks.

Before I joined Viewbank College, as a parent, I was part of a group called the Friends of STEAM which was as established already in Viewbank College and I was a part as a parent. So when I came as a staff I took over and we developed it further. And through that, Friends of STEAM, we ran these lunchtime activities with experts. We invited a lot of people to come and showcase what is happening in academia, in industry and develop those network connections.

But in 2019, we also ventured it into something called the STEAM Futures Conference. And this was a great opportunity because we invited, almost, experts from every single curriculum domain to come and give workshops. And we had about 25 to 30 people volunteer their time to come and do these workshops for teachers, whom we invited from all over Victoria. From that, there were a lot of partnerships that were established in different schools and in our school as well. We then went on to look at, in 2022– and the bigger part of that was that we also encouraged our students to run this conference.

So yes, I did the background work. I mean, as teachers, we did it. But on that day, the whole organisation and the facilitation of the conference was done by students. So again, there was a lot of networking by the students with the industry professionals themselves.

We also did the same thing – I mean I tried to do that in my subject areas all the time. So I tend to connect students, especially in Year 12 Systems Engineering to an industry partner or an academic partner. Because through this subject I want them to experience what engineering is in real world and how to develop these networks.

So that is a little bit of a training that I go along with them and show them that they need to step out of their comfort zone in reaching out to people. So that is the whole industry connection part of it.

DR: And so another question that we – because we've spoken to many of the winners of the Prime Minister's Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching over the years – and one question that we really like to ask is if they can share a favourite learning activity or a lesson that they led with students in the last school year. Does anything jump out to you that you'd like to share?

VN: Yes, definitely. Last year, what we did for the first time – and I'm not sure whether other schools are doing something similar, I would love to know, but we started in Year 7.

So it's not a lesson plan or an activity, but it's a more of a whole-school approach that we shifted. So we started, our Year 7 program, which was initially either Art or Tech and we combined them and offer them as Art Tech Year 7 program. And again through that we encourage students to – so there are 3 projects that we did. And that again brings us back to a little bit of this industry connection.

So the one of the projects that was done was called the Protein Database Project. We had done that, and I must give credit to the Art Leader in my school for taking that initiative. I mean, I can bring a lot of opportunities, and I tend to say yes to everything. But there should be someone who also is crazy like me to do it. So she was the one who took on that lead and did that program earlier with her Year 11s and Year 10s.

But this year, for the first time, we introduced this program in Year 7. Grade 6 students who come into Year 7 have really no idea what proteins and protein structures and all of those, so we brought it down for them to understand what these protein structures are. But the fact that these students then went on to win and get represented in the International Printing Database Exhibition was really the hallmark of this program. So that was one of the projects that we did.

So the idea is again to develop this problem-solving creativity. All of these things that we talked about right from Year 7 and give them that open space for students to develop their own curriculum and run with it and work in a group.

So everything that we really want our students to have, we put it into this – and with the focus on Sustainable Development Goals as well – and we ran 2 projects last year. One was the protein database and the second was the Variable Technologies. So again a massive jump for all of us, and our teachers to really take on and become the facilitators and especially with Variable Technologies. And then we had a fashion show.

The students absolutely loved it. And this jump that we saw in the students from the way they looked at their own learning and took responsibility and ownership and agency of their learning was something that I really was really happy with.

DR: And so just finally then, Veena, I thought it would be good to get a bit of an idea, if you have any plans in the pipeline for the 2023 school year after winning such an amazing award, is there anything going on at the College or perhaps just professionally?

VN: There are many things that are going on. So of course at school I'll continue to promote and work and on all the programs, the space programs that we have, the sustainability programs that we have, the Science Talent Search as I mentioned, as many engineering opportunities I can provide.

But one of the things that I'm keen to develop is in sustainability and in global citizenship and that is something that I'm trying to focus on next year.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify or Apple podcasts, and if you’d like to leave us a rating or a review, it really helps us out. We’ll be back with a brand new episode very soon.

You’ve been listening to a podcast from Teacher magazine supported by the QT Academy. Empowering teachers to empower each other. For more visit

George Pantazis says: ‘the most important thing you can do as a teacher is to learn from your students’. With a colleague, discuss together a recent example of when you’ve done this. What did you learn? How did this experience inform your next steps in teaching?

Veena Nair says: ‘we must encourage community to come to the school and have partnerships.’ When reflecting on the 2022 school year, how did your school effectively engage with the community to improve student outcomes? What could you work on in the 2023 school year?