Science teachers recognised with Prime Minister's Prize

Primary school STEM Specialist Megan Hayes from Mudgeeraba Creek State School in Mudgeeraba, Queensland, and Scott Graham, Head of Agriculture at Barker College in Sydney, New South Wales, were last night named recipients of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching for their outstanding contribution to science education and positive impact on student outcomes.

Now in its 21st year, the national awards recognise exceptional work in research; innovation; and science, mathematics or technology teaching in primary and secondary school settings. Recipients of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching receive $50 000. Previous winners include Darren Hamley and Sarah Fletcher; Sarah Finney and Dr Samantha Moyle; Brett Crawford and Scott Sleap; and Neil Bramsen and Brett McKay.

Increasing female participation in STEM

STEM Specialist Megan Hayes is passionate about bringing a real-world context to her teaching and encouraging female participation in STEM. To this end, she has worked closely with high-profile scientists and this year also created a ‘Sistas in STEM’ conference – an event to encourage female participation in STEM, which was attended by female students and teachers from schools in the Gold Coast area.

‘Mrs Hayes works with high-profile “real-world” scientists to expand on current curriculum content. As a result of this ongoing collaboration, students in her Year 2 classes were able to create scientific diagrams and confidently explain concepts using terminology usually reserved for high school students,’ says Dierdre von Guilleaume, Principal at Mudgeeraba Creek State School.

Hayes says anecdotal evidence is showing families are wanting to enrol their children to the school because of its outstanding STEM program. ‘I think the children at Mudgeeraba Creek State School think about science very differently now. Science isn’t about textbooks anymore. It’s about taking risks, trial and error and having lots of fun. Even outside the classroom, students will come and tell me about something they have read or seen. Science has become almost a language at the school – it forms the fabric of our school culture,’ she shares.

Hayes has more than 30 years’ teaching experience and has created a Professional Learning Team for Science at the school, which she leads. She is also passionate about digital technology, and her integration of digital tools into her classroom prior to COVID-19 meant she was able to deliver high-quality remote lessons during periods of school closures.

‘In my classroom, we have a sign that says FAIL – this stands for “First Attempt In Learning”,’ she says. ‘It’s not my goal to set students up to fail, but I want to show them that the first attempt isn’t always a success. I encourage them to make mistakes. This is often when they begin to collaborate with their peers to work together in a problem-solving manner, and this is when the best learning takes place.’

Fostering agricultural knowledge and skills

Barker College has seen a tripling in enrolments in agriculture in the past seven years under the leadership of Scott Graham, Head of Agriculture at the school. They now have over 380 students enrolled in the subject across Years 9 to 12. Around 90 of these are in Year 12, which is more than double the number of any other school in Australia.

This is a particularly remarkable achievement considering the school is located in an urban area. Because of their location, Graham says he’s conscious that many students are disconnected from the industry.

‘One of our strategies has been to develop a range of resources and teaching materials that make students think about how agriculture fits into the bigger picture. Whether it’s dealing with food security or climate change, we want students to be involved in making a difference.

‘Even if these students don’t pursue a career in agriculture, they are still going to have at least four interactions with agriculture every day. This could be anything from the food they eat to the clothes they wear. Agriculture will have something to do with students every day for the rest of their lives, so it’s important that they have something to do with agriculture. We want them to be informed about the decisions they make.’

He shares that he has a goal to see more students pursue agriculture as a career in order to fill the pressing employment needs, with around five jobs currently available for each university graduate.

Mudgeeraba Creek State School says partnering with industry experts long term has seen young primary school children achieve scientific understanding usually expected of secondary students. In the upcoming school year, where might you have the opportunity to involve industry experts to enhance student learning? How will you measure the impact this collaboration has?

Scott Graham is passionate about sharing the relevance and impact of the agriculture industry with students living in urban areas of the country. Is this something you do well in your school? How could you better support students thinking of pursuing careers in this field?