School Improvement Episode 50: Award-winning STEM teachers

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

National awards are just one way of recognising the outstanding work of teachers, school leaders and other education staff, and their impact on student outcomes. The longstanding Prime Minister’s Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching, recognising one primary and one secondary STEM teacher for their outstanding contribution to the field, is just one example.

The 2023 winners were announced late last year as Donna Buckley from John Curtin College of the Arts in Western Australia, and Judith Stutchbury from Kalkie State School in Queensland. We had the pleasure of speaking with Donna and Judith late last year about the work they’ve been recognised for.

Let’s get straight into it and hear our conversation first of all with Judith Stutchbury.

DR: Thank you so much Judith, for joining us on our podcast episode today. It's great to be able to chat with you in a bit more detail about your fantastic story and all the work that you're doing that's had you recognised with such a prestigious prize at a national level. I thought to kick things off, it would be great if you can give us a bit of an insight about the school context at your school and also if you can share what your role is there?

Judith Stutchbury: I'm from a small school in Bundaberg in Queensland called Kalki State School. It has about 320 students. We're also a Reef Guardian School, which is a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Reef Guardian program. And I teach year 3 as well as manage the environmental science, marine science and biological sciences that the Reef Guardian program involves.

DR: And you've obviously been named as one of the winners of the Prime Minister's prizes for excellence in science teaching. Can you tell me a little bit about what it means for you and also for your school community to be named winner?

JS: It's very humbling and it's a very much an honour. There are so many great teachers doing amazing things in all of Australia and it's important, I think sometimes, to showcase what teachers do because we just go from one thing to the next and we just keep going and going, and sometimes it's nice to stop and reflect.

So, for me it was lovely to have to stop and think about what I had been doing and maybe the impact that that was having on students and the community and being able to see the ways that teachers across the region are connecting and the important work that that's doing. So, yeah, it's very exciting because we're a regional school as well and a small school, so it doesn't happen often here. And I don't know if it has happened before here or not (we did try to find that out) but yeah, so it's very exciting. And very humbling because when we went down to Canberra, we’re with these scientists that are such high-level scientists doing just such amazing cutting-edge science that, you know, you sort of almost feel a little bit out of place – here as a little year 3 teacher.

However, it was really lovely to see how humble they were and how important the teachers were in their lives to get them to where they were wanting to go. The President of the Australian Science Academy, Professor Jagadish, he said how if it wasn't for his science teacher, he would be presently sowing seeds in a rice farm in India. So the impact that a teacher can have on a student or many students is very amazing.

DR: And your Principal, Malinda Findlay, she has said that you're really inclusive in your teaching. So, I was wondering if you could describe how you've managed to create an inclusive culture in your classroom?

JS: Well, I have a diverse number of students from different cultures in my classroom, so it's always really exciting for them to teach me about their culture. We've just recently celebrated Diwali. We have a Punjabi boy in our classroom (Indian background) and it was really lovely for him to be able to educate the rest of the students and me about his special culture and special celebrations. But before that – I always do that whenever I've got a student from a different nationality – but also we had an Indigenous friend come to the classroom to teach us Indigenous greetings, so that when they were marking the roll, they could say ‘welcome’ or ‘good morning’ in their own Indigenous language, which was really exciting for them and also to learn about their own culture and also to share it with other students.

So, I've sort of included that in a book that I wrote too, that we may get to, in the sense that the book encapsulates so much Reef Guardian work that we've done. So I've included those stories and different children that have been relevant, you know, to all our different learnings in the classroom to be inclusive. And it's so, so much amazing learning when you start talking about inclusiveness and the different backgrounds of people and circumstances. And, yeah, it's actually really lovely and almost gives you goosebumps when you hear other students be so excited, and their families, for really valuing their history and background as well. So, yeah, it's really exciting actually.

DR: And you've also been recognised for some events that you've helped organised in your community like the Reef Together and Science Together events. Can you tell me a bit about those events and also the opportunities that they were able to provide to students?

JS: In 2018, for International Year of the Reef, we decided that we don't get a lot of conventions in Bundaberg for Reef Guardian or marine science and biological science and environmental science. So, we thought, why not make something here ourselves that the students can go to? And with the support of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, we held Reef Together, and it brought 200 children from about 14 schools across the region together.

And, it was very rewarding as a teacher to be able to interact with other teachers in the region, which often you are one teacher at one school doing all this Reef Guardian work and to be able to connect with other teachers across the region doing the same thing was wonderful from a teaching perspective, but also for students being able to interact with students doing similar things at other schools. It was really powerful actually. And it took 5 years, because it was a lot of work on top of full-time teaching, but 5 years later we had … this year is the 20th anniversary of the Reef Guardian program, so we decided that we'd have another go. For National Science Week we created ‘Science Together’, we called it, and the students came together again with the teachers. So, we had 400 students and community members across 18 schools that came together in a similar way, where we heard from some amazing world-class scientists, like Dr Jordan Ngyuen. And, we learnt from them, we interacted with each other, and showcased what schools are doing; so, really important work to inspire each other.

DR: And some of our longtime listeners will know we’ve got a long history on the podcast of interviewing the recipients of the Prime Minister's Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching. And one thing we always like to ask them is if they can share one or 2 of their favourite learning activities with our listeners. So is there one or 2 that you'd like to share with us today?

JS: Sure, I really just have started to dabble in project-based learning, and we started with looking at the issues or the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef and the creatures. So, we looked at coral bleaching and artificial light pollution, which disorientates our local nesting hatchlings and turtles, and plastic pollution. So the students had to research and make their own projects and the learning and the deeper learning that came from seeing those students wanting to research and find out and then have something to present was really lovely as a teacher to see all that interaction. So, that's something that I would like to do a lot more with. I actually became more involved in that through a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority professional development, run by Think Global School. And yeah, that was really exciting to learn more about that and how that was really impacting students and the deep learning that was coming from that.

So that's something that I like to share, but also I think getting involved in community events. If you've got an interest in an area and you're really passionate about it, try to include the community. And that I think has been a basis of a lot of my work in in lead up to the Prime Minister's Prizes. And I think that's really important because there's so many retired or specialist people out there that can do so much for your students’ learning. I think that's really important to engage with other people.

DR: And I can tell from our conversation already that you've had such success, obviously in teaching students about environmental issues. For other teachers around the country that are listening to this podcast – do you have any words of advice for them, for if they're wanting to kind of delve into this in a little more depth in the 2024 school year?

JS: Sure. I have a passion for the environment, obviously, so I love to teach environmental science and marine science and biological sciences. And our school joined (I think about 19 years ago now) we joined up as a Reef Guardian School and to have the support from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, with our learning and our science that we've been doing, has been wonderful.

So, if you've got an interest in that field to join up as a Reef Guardian School is wonderful. The Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots program is another wonderful program to join. So, they're sort of things that if you've got a passion, try and find an area that that has good resources and that can help you and inspire you to want to learn more and to teach your students.

DR: And before I let you go, we touched very briefly on your book [HATCH saves the reef] in our conversation earlier. Would you like to tell us any more about that?

JS: Well, the book actually was a culmination of about 7 years of work, and I didn't ever set out to write a book, it just happened. It came from, you know, being engaged with the children and some things that were happening in our region.

So, if there's something that's really important for your community, to get involved, I think that's really important as a teacher, and it makes meaningful connections for students. The book came from teachers in a group just talking about how we could communicate the problems to a wider audience, of the issues impacting the Great Barrier Reef and our turtles here. And somebody mentioned that the Low Glow team were coming and part of that was Disney. And I thought, well, there's a chance, you know, we can write a film script. So I went home that night and started writing a film script and 3:00 o'clock in the morning, I thought oh I'd better stop, go to bed. Lucky it was a Friday night!

And then I sent it to an International Film Festival, and it was a finalist and came second, runner-up. And a good friend in Sydney suggested it should be converted to a children's chapter book. So over 7 years I did that. And it's been wonderful actually for the children as well because they can see themselves in the book and they also were little editors for a little while helping me with the story. And that was a real learning journey in itself.

So, if anybody out there has great ideas, books are amazing and they last forever and, you know, even talking to the other winners of the Prime Minister's Prizes (the recipients) they, you know, have ideas for their own to write children's books, to inspire them in in their areas of science. So that's really exciting too.

After the break, we’ll bring you our conversation with Donna Buckley, winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

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DR: Donna, welcome to the Teacher podcast. It's great to have you with us for this episode. To kick us off, can you tell me a little bit about your school context and also your roles there.

Donna Buckley: Yes. So John Curtin is located in Fremantle, Western Australia, and we’re a selective College of the Arts. So, we have students from arts media, ballet, drama, across visual arts (all the arts) music, etc.

I'm the mathematics teacher at a College of the Arts – oh, we also offer a football program as well; like the Matildas (the soccer) – and we do have a small local intake. But yeah, I'm the mathematics teacher, and I've retrained to also offer a VET (Vocational Education Workplace Skills) aligned to the cybersecurity industry. Because that's something we've done well as an arts school, we have a lot of industry aligned arts courses, so it made sense that in this space that a generic workplace skill for all that is technologically evolving at a faster pace than curriculum could possibly keep up; it could sit in industry and that's how we were able to bring cybersecurity into the context.

DR: We'll get to your work in the mathematics space in a second, but I thought just first, I'm sure our listeners will be really interested to hear that you teach cybersecurity. So can you tell me a little bit more about what that involves?

DB: Yes. So as I was saying, it's a workplace skills Cert [certificate] 2. So, we set a Cert 2 level, so something that a lot of schools are offering. I thought when I first retrained, I would be doing an IT course and then they changed with the policy, and then it was business. So now it's called Cert 2 Workplace Skills. So I offer 10 units of competency over the 2-year period, 8 from business and 2 are imported from IT. So in year 11, Unit 1 and 2 covers ethics, online safety, we do workplace ergonomics, like how do you sit at your desk? We all work from home. And I use a lot of the eSafety Commissioner website as a resource. In the 3rd and 4th units I look at digital communications – so some students, it's sending an email, but then we contextualise it to cybersecurity by talking about social engineering, phishing emails, encryption. How do we hash data to keep the integrity of it in place, so we know that someone hasn't corrupted our files? Also, just some basic security like tools like antivirus installation and access controls.

… It is a practical course, so its industry aligned – we have a work in a business environment. So, what I've done there is the students are participating in ‘capture the flag’ training, so that's where cybersecurity people have all these little cryptic technical puzzles and the students, I put them in random groups, and they're actually assessed on their ability to work together in the team, their persistence, their punctuality, preparedness, not their technical prowess, but they do get competitive.

So, it's really inclusive with everyone learning at their own rate in that environment. So we also look at industry business plans and policies. So I'll explain what vision targets are; and I use the ASD REDSPICE document, Cyber CX, and even the school business plan as an example – like, ‘this is how an organisation runs and if you want to work in a workplace you need to make sure that aligns with you’.

So, once we get to year 12, the students have the baseline understanding of what cybersecurity is, because they've participated in those events. So, we start to use what I call a Champion Creating Champion model to support and grow the students, to share their understanding of the activities. And so, we start to build a culture within the school of a cybersecure culture.

So, for example, they might give a 5-minute talk at the year 8 assembly about cyber safety that they've learned in year 11. Just the other day the students ran a year 8 and 9 AP mathematics, so I used those students to run a cyber day. So they created workshops and puzzles and we brought some industry guests in and they had a panel discussion about educational pathways. And I even invited our local MP, Mr Josh Wilson, to attend. And he was available, and he was on our Careers Panel, and it's quite nice because he's on the Intelligence Committee. So, it was quite wonderful to have him there talking about the role of intelligence and diversity, and we have a little Caesar cipher decryption reel with John Curtin Intelligence Agency printed on it. So we gave him that as our gift. And … Walter [McGuire] in Technologies who teaches our Cert 2 course, he made those little wheels for me, and he's made me cybersecurity signs. But that's again, the students helping that. So, my students help in the school, Walter’s production students help me create things that I can use, and when they're doing the assessment, my students are getting assessed on their face-to-face communication and their time-management skills. So, we're just helping grow and get that feedback. So we rise the tides and the boats rise with us, shall we say.

And then our last units are in year 12 (9and 10, I'll say) are data and sustainability and I've been able to incorporate the Microsoft Imagine Cup for that, because they have the AI For Good and if we know anything, you know, machine learning, it's all about data. And we also use like some Wireshark tools, so there's some online ‘Capture The Flag’ competitions there.

And I've even, what's the beauty of the course is that 2022 is my first graduates and one of those students went on to do a Cert 4 at the local TAFE, but now he's employed by the school as a technical casual tech support! So I've got tech support and that's just amazing. And when the students see my ex-students doing their thing, then it just keeps going. See her, be her, create a culture in the school that inspires each next generation to be the best person they can be.

DR: And of course, you've also been recognised with this prize for your work in mathematics teaching. In particular, being able to apply mathematics to real-world problems for your students, which is something that our listeners are always really interested in. So, I'm sure they'll be very eager to hear if you can share an example or 2 of how you've done that in the classroom.

DB: Yeah, Math Talent Quest is my baby here in WA. I first entered it with my year 9 students many moons ago with the Maths Association of Victoria Math Talent Quest. Thank you, Jen Bowden out at MAV for her passion, she kept it alive. And it was just so many applications. My students did guitar case designs, costume ruffles in textiles, and recently Reclaiming the Void which is like weaving rag rugs to help heal Country. They’re assessed on the mathematical thinking process and the students come up with the problem of their own.

The rag rug, oh, beautiful project. I'll use that as my example. There's many – I've got hundreds of them – but it's an artwork project that started out in Leonora in WA, which is a mining, they've got big gaping mining holes on Country. And so, the students were able to use SOAR digital mapping tools to calculate the areas of the holes. And then they've teamed up – there was other students were weaving the rugs and how much … they’re made from old sheets, so how much … we're taking that sustainable fashion. And they even did some calculus, because through the context of that problem, they had to learn it to get area under a curve. So, they had the problem, and we were just seeing ‘how how many rag rugs would it take to fill up a hole, and how much actual waste, fashion waste, like sheets, is being taken out of the environment?’

DR: Fantastic. Well, I'll give you another opportunity now to share a couple more learning activities. Is there anything else that you'd like to share?

DB: I'm going to use Two-up. Because Two-up, you've probably all played with the heads and tails, as you do, for probability. So, my school is in Fremantle, I overlook the harbour, and it always reminds me – I sort of through that idea of Two-up I talk about the ANZACs; I talk about the men (like my grandfather) down at the Wharf who would play Two-up and then they might have gambled their money and then the women and children had no money.

So, we'd actually contextualise, and then I said, ‘this is why we banned gambling, you know, you're allowed to play Two-up in WA on the streets because it's about that risk and social good’, shall we say. And then we'll go out and I teach them how to play Two-up. So you go outside on the oval.

I've recently even brought in the betting chips, and I told them, ‘Oh, this is illegal. You can only play it on ANZAC Day or at the casino or in a little ring in Kalgoorlie.’ And they go ‘Oh, miss you're teaching us something naughty’ – you know, high school kids. So then we start playing 2 up and it's just magnificent to watch. So, then we play it outside, then I go back into the classroom. So they understand the game, they understand the probability and then I start modelling the mathematics of it on the board. So, you know, tree diagram, sample space, all through that context of play. And it sort of sticks.

But I love this year 8 boy, because I started talking about spinning coins, and he said ‘this feels very Schrödinger to me’ – and Schrödinger’s cat is a quantum physics (because probability, the spin) and I was like, ‘bam, you've got that.’ I didn't go into it in detail because I don't think any of these students would have been, but I was like, ‘yeah, it's very quantum’. So yeah, that was fun.

DR: You've also been recognised for introducing students from a diverse and creative background to career opportunities in STEM. You've already let us know about one example where you've had a student come back to the school and work in that area. But can you share with me a bit more broadly about how you're managing to do this in your school setting?

DB: It's that circular school, the inclusivity in the classroom. I started doing alternative assessment practices – I've learned so much from that VET space. I’ve taught methods and those high-level mathematics, and I'd have these brilliant young mathematical minds brought to tears because they get their first D and they've been A students and it's just, it's quite devastating. And that kills mathematics as a subject and then they don't go on to study it.

So, just using observation checklists and really low entry, high ceiling tasks like the ones that are available freely on reSolve, the website. Also, I've been looking at the work of [Peter Liljedahl] from my maths book club and so he's using the vertical whiteboards in random groups of 3 and that active learning with play and creativity really is helping to engage the students in the STEM. So that's how I'm doing it within my classroom in my setting.

Dominique Russell: Coincidental that you mentioned that because we had a teacher, Holly Wedd from New South Wales, who shared a video with us just recently about using that exact technique from that book in her classroom, the vertical whiteboards with the groups of 3. And she said it's made a world of a difference for the students in her class. So, I will pop a link to that video in the transcript of this podcast that’s available at our website, so that our listeners are able to see a visual representation of that activity as well.

DB: Perfect! Well, that's my segue to Maths Book Club WA. My best PL experience I've ever done. And this really started from a Twitter chat when Eddie Woo won the Australian Inspirational Award and he brought out a book. We thought we’d read it, we started going, ‘oh, you getting the book? I’m getting the book,’ and went ‘oh, we’ve got this book club’ and they went, ‘oh, what shall we read next?’ And from there, we've just discovered this world of books and you can go on our website, through the Maths Association of Western Australia. I've done reviews.

The next one I'm reading is Mathematics Without Numbers. It's a 25-year-old boy who’s writing it. It's amazing and it's all about topology, and there's just so many great books out there that you can read. So, and it's really good professional learning. And often what I hear from teachers is, ‘I don't want to go to book club. I don't have time. I have to do this,’ etcetera, but this pressure we put on ourselves, like, we need to sort of slow it down and take a breath and reflect.

So, reading Popular Science, even signing up to the Quantum Newsletter will give you a greater understanding of what is really happening; the collaborative and creativity that is involved in science. And as a PM Prize winner, I saw it firsthand being in that room with those scientists; they were, wow. And they were all collaborative. And you just don't find that in a textbook.

There's Astro Kat Ross, over here in WA. She's an astrophysicist.

DR: Yes, she was also a guest on our podcast recently actually.

DB: So, you may know that she was looking at the curriculum and that you won't find any female scientists in the textbooks or the curriculum. And we have amazing people like Michelle Simmons, Cheryl Praeger, over here, Jan [Kornweibel] (I can't pronounce her last name), this computer scientist who's got a Churchill Fellowship, and it was for access to computers with disability. And we keep putting these old white guys from 200 years ago that are not even Australian even. And we need diversity, not even just women, like you've got Chris [Greening], who's one of the other [PM’s] prize winners. He's amazing, he’s in molecules. So, I think we need to shift that, we need to have diverse representation in our classrooms, and you get that from reading Popular Science and finding out. And let's believe in the skills of our teachers developing our skills and confidence and that.

But if you take the time out to read a Popular Science book, you will discover there is a fascinating world of diverse, curious scientists out there who have wonderful stories to tell. Then you can tell their stories to your students. Because, after all, this is Australia, our stories of Country are older than anyone else’s in the world, so let’s keep growing that.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to catch up on that podcast episode with Dr Kathryn Ross that I mentioned in my interview with Donna, it’s titled Where are the female scientists in high school curricula? and you can find it by scrolling down just a little bit on our podcast feed, or I’ll also leave a link to it in the transcript of this podcast episode, which you can find under the podcast tab at our website,

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Related Teacher content:

Video: 2 maths activities for probability with Holly Wedd

The Research Files Episode 87: Where are the female scientists in high school curricula?

Judith Stutchbury says if you're passionate about a certain area, to try to include the community. For example, by engaging experts who may have retired or other interested specialists locally. As a teacher, reflect on the last time you included an expert from the community in your teaching. In what ways did their involvement enhance the learning outcomes for your students? How could you go about making this happen for the 2024 school year?

When was the last time you read a professional learning book? Did you recommend it to a colleague? As a specialist science, STEM teacher or primary teacher, do you introduce your own students to a diverse range of experts in their fields?