Teaching Methods: Team teaching with university academics

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

In this episode, we're going to be looking at a really interesting research project which featured a unique form of team teaching. It's detailed in a paper published in the Australian Journal of Education and involved a one year collaborative program between university academics, teachers and their students. The students were Year 10 gifted and talented students and attended St Matthews Catholic School in Mudgee, which is in regional New South Wales.

This program all started after a partnership developed between St Matthews Catholic School and the University of Sydney. The aim of this partnership, and this research project, was to strengthen students' interest in science and skills in STEM. A key component involved classroom lessons which were team taught with an academic and classroom teacher.

As you'll hear in this episode, the program involved a university academic team teaching a series of lessons in collaboration with the classroom teacher to cover statistical principles in science. Then, the students visit the University of Sydney to spend time with researchers, before travelling overseas to work on a research project with other researchers. All throughout this process the university staff and teaching staff were working really closely together, and it's that collaboration that made this program so successful.

In this episode, I'm joined by a co-author of the report, Professor Patrick Brennan from the University of Sydney, and Brooke Colley, a teacher at St Matthews who was involved in the research. They speak about how the collaborative nature of this research was really essential to strengthening students' STEM skills in areas like data analysis, experimentation and scientific writing.

First, we'll hear from Professor Patrick Brennan, and I'll then take you to Brooke Colley. You'll hear Patrick and Brooke mention Dr Louise Puslednik, who is the science coordinator at St Matthews Catholic School and a co-author of this report. She wrote an article for Teacher on this same research, which I'll place in the transcript of this podcast, which you can find at teachermagazine.com.au. Let's jump in and hear from Professor Patrick Brennan.

Patrick Brennan: I'm a Professor of Diagnostic Imaging in the Faculty of Medicine and Health in the University of Sydney and I've been doing research around trying to enhance people's ability to find disease for around 20 to 30 years.

So I lead a number of researchers, at all levels, senior researchers right down to PhD students. But it became apparent to me that we could do a lot of good in working with colleagues in high schools to try and encourage younger people to have a real interest in science and to demystify the whole issue and worries that people have about studying science in universities.

So I had a meeting, it must have been close to five years ago now, with Dr Puslednik and Brooke Colley who's also part of this program. And we decided that why didn't I introduce some basic research concepts to the students, talk about my own research, and so on? And from there it's grown exponentially and organically in that we're now doing research in places like, Hanoi, in Trieste and in other places.

And I am so glad, from my point of view, I have all these wonderfully able, willing students wanting to do research with me, which for us, is gold dust. And we have an opportunity then to see these students grow, and at the end of the period they seem to have just a wonderful appreciation of science and that it's not a big deal and that, you know, anyone can do it once they have a little bit of training and so on. And it's just been a very, very fruitful, symbiotic relationship.

Dominique Russell: Yeah, to have it expand that widely must mean it's wildly successful, that's great to hear. I'm interested then, from an academic perspective, why are partnerships of this kind – particularly when you are team teaching – so valuable?

PB: Well it's valuable on a number of fronts. And you can look at this from either the university perspective or the school perspective. From the university's perspective, as I say, it's invaluable to have keen students who are able, who are motivated and who are led by teaching leaders, such as Brooke, such as Lou Puslednik. And there's a real desire to really understand this research and do research.

It's not, you can't … teaching people about how to do research, a bit like teaching people how to learn a language, you can't just teach them and expect them to suddenly be able to do it, they've got to apply it. And at the end of this program of study the students – and this is I think the benefit for the students and the school – is the students really understand that science is not that difficult, it just requires familiarity with concepts and so on.

And at the end of it you have them using statistics that I would have advanced or senior PhD students using, they're able to use those statistics, they're able to write papers that get published in the leading international journals that are as peer reviewed as any other journal they're really, really highly competitive journals. They go and do a research study with leading clinicians, you know, whether it's in Asia, in Australia, in Italy, for example.

And they can manage the project – I don't manage the project, I'm there, but they manage the project – and at the end of it then they write this up, they provide the data and they write it up. It's not a pretend activity, this is real research that they engage in. And at the end of it I think they have a lot of confidence, they certainly are much more interested in science than they previously were. They're able to write better, they're able to analyse data that they never would have known how to analyse previously. And they've just, it seems to me, they've just got a fondness on doing this sort of this.

And Dr Puslednik has actually measured the impact on the students of doing this type of activity and she's published a paper on that and it shows that those students who engage with this sort of activity improve significantly in their scores in other subjects and so on.

DR: So as you mentioned just there, the paper describes that the lessons in the schools covered things like statistical data analysis, scientific writing and experimental design. So I'm interested then in how you actually went about engaging with these classroom teachers and preparing the lessons on these topics. Was it a very collaborative approach?

PB: Oh, absolutely. This doesn't work without a champion within the school environment. So we had two very willing champions with Dr Puslednik and Ms Colley. It has to be a very, very close collaboration. We're clear right at the very beginning of the year what the objectives of this work is and we make sure that the hours that we have with these students, both in the classroom and in the research environment, are ones that complement the whole activity and make sure the objectives we have set are actually met. It won't work, it will absolutely not work without a close collaboration and a mutual agreement about what the students want to get out of it.

It's not like a typical school class that happens every week for a particular term. Research doesn't work like that, it's not as convenient. So what we do at the beginning is I come in, and I you know, would have 40 minute classes and sometimes double classes. And certainly in the initial period, I can, over maybe, I don't know, maybe eight weeks, where each week we go through statistical principles, we then get the students to do a mini project in their own environment, they bring back data, we apply the statistics to those data.

And you know, that's, if you like, the formal part. But after that, it starts unravelling a little bit, because that's what research does. So you have a load of data and then we've got to try and analyse these data and the analysis doesn't work, necessarily, so we've got to look at how we're going to change things and I come in and we try and work through it, so after that it gets a little more haphazard.

But in total, I would say that throughout the year in the classroom we'd probably have maybe about between 12 and 20 sessions. Brooke may have a better handle on that. But then they come down to the University of Sydney, and they meet some of the researchers down there, the PhD students, the post docs, and they hear their presentations and so on. So that's another series of activities.

And then they go overseas if that's possible, obviously this year it's going to be really hard to be able to do that, but we go overseas and then they gather data. They gather data towards the end of the year and then they take those data and they pass them on to the next group of students. So if you like there's a little mentoring going on here as well. They're actually creating these data that they actually hand on to their next year students because they received the data from their previous year of students, if you like, so there's a lag, if you like. So in a way, the classroom is one part of it, but it's much more than that.

I think this is just a wonderful thing, as I said, once you've got people in the school, leaders in the school, like Brooke and like Dr Puslednik who are willing to take charge of this, because it will take time, it it's not just something that happens easily, it takes time to organise. You can imagine organising children to go to Hanoi, and this isn't just to look at cathedrals, this is to embed themselves with busy clinicians, to do a research project that will go wrong. You know, the thing will go wrong – experiments always go wrong – but then they've got to try and work out a solution. It takes a lot of effort and time. So once you've got the champion within the school this can work really well and I think it's such a win/win from the university's perspective but also from the school's.

That was Patrick Brennan there. Now I'm going to take you to Brooke Colley who's going to speak more about the teacher and the student experience of this project. You'll hear Brooke further discuss the data students were working on during this project, which related to breast cancer research, and how much learning she did throughout this time. Let's hear from her now.

Brooke Colley: I did a Bachelor of Applied Science in Human Movement Studies and I'm actually head of PDHPE at our school.

And Lou one year, the syllabuses were changing with introduction of investigating science, extension sciences were happening in NSW. Lou had sort of implemented this program on a smaller scale with Patrick for a year or so, and then Lou came up with the idea of possibly embedding it into the curriculum of investigating science as an opportunity where you can apply the working scientific skills within that syllabus in a real world environment. And obviously the link was already there with Patrick.

It was just like a perfect mix. I had never taught Stage 6 science at that time and those students were invited to be involved with that program at that time and with the link with the University of Sydney. It hasn't run like that every year we just trialled it at the time. The data that Lou's paper is based on is on that cohort of students.

DR: Yeah, great. And so I'm interested then from your perspective, the lessons that were team taught with the university academic. What was your experience like with that?

BC: I'm a PDHPE teacher, so we work together a lot. We're very collaborative, so it's natural that you just give and take with the person. Some people are better at some things than others and you complement each other with that. And I think because of the personalities of the group, you recognise people's strengths and you go to that.

So the opportunity to travel overseas for the students and being able to be in that environment, I suppose for the students, you need certain people around in that setting as well. I'm probably better at that stuff than the technical stuff like Patrick would be.

Initially, like I did, probably statistics 101 when I was at university 20 years ago. So in the first stages I was learning as well. So I would be in the lecture, like I was a student in the lecture. Because Patrick would teach us and then we would go on and continue to do the work in the classroom. So it wasn't like only done when Patrick was there. So I sort of had to upskill myself in things that were previously, I hadn't done. So it was an amazing opportunity for me.

And the other thing that impresses me with the program, how Lou has approached the program, that she's invited different teachers into the program to upskill and build capacity across different teachers. So I'm not the only one who has benefited from the experience.

DR: Great. I'm interested as well in what the student's experience was with all of this. I mean surely it's something they haven't quite experienced before, having the university academic come into the classroom and, as Patrick was saying, have something that seems so embedded and long-term. So have you had any feedback from students or did you notice if it enhanced their learning at all?

BC: It's life-changing for these kids, this experience. I think in some ways their view of the world is quite limited, and being involved with these experiences and what they can do opens up to so many different things. So the research skills that they gain from looking at the breast cancer research is like the starting point to what these kids could do in the future. They're amazing students, highly intelligent, very inquisitive, and the world is at their feet. And I think they can see they can research any field of interest now. They've got the basic skills to be excellent at anything.

DR: Yeah, and so I noticed as well in the paper it said that the classroom teacher was able to support this particular type of learning through the implementation of an adaptive science curriculum. So how did you go about doing that?

BC: At the beginning of the year we sat down and developed a schedule of the timeline of events of things that we wanted to achieve by different times, and then with that, and assignments were based around aspects of the task. For example, their first assessment task was a data analysis task where they're applying their skills, and then from there we would build on that sort of knowledge.

The Stage 6 working scientifically skills perfectly match in with this. So in terms of, they have to write a research, do a research project at some point at the end of the year, so the students could have chosen to research this topic on top of that, or they could've gone further into something else as part of that curriculum at that point in time. So it's just the real world application of it and the working scientifically skills, just mapping it out. Just took a bit of time but we could do it quite easily in the end.

DR: And so just finally then, do you have any words of advice from a school perspective, for teachers wanting to kick start a similar program in their school setting?

BC: The big thing is relationships, having relationships with your principal within your school, because if you don't have that on board first and a strong relationship with them to see the value of innovative curriculum, out-of-the-box, real-world application of learning, is never going to work.

So you have to get some key stakeholders in the school [on board] first. And it's seeking people within your community who have these skillsets. There are parents, community members who have amazing skills sets that you could easily access. We were very lucky that Patrick was a member of the school and had a great idea, and that Lou was in the school at the same time. Without those two coming up with this idea, because it was just an idea to start off with, and to then just make it, putting the idea in the principal's head, and he loved it at that point in time, so he supported that program. But if you don't have the support of the principal or the people doing the timetable sometimes, then it's harder to work through some of the intricacies of these sorts of programs.

That's all for this episode. To access the full transcript for this podcast, head to teachermagazine.com.au. That's where you'll also find all of our articles, videos and infographics for free. While you're there, be sure to sign up to the Teacher Bulletin to have our new content delivered straight to your inbox.


Puslednik, L., Brennan, P.C. (2020) An Australian-based authentic science research programme transforms the 21st century learning of rural high school students. Australian Journal of Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004944120919890

Further readings

Jackson, R.L., Double, C.R., Munro, H.J., Lynch, J., Tapia, K.A., Trieu, P.D., Alakhras, M., Ganesan, A., Do, T.D., Soh, B.P., Brennan, P.C., Puslednik, L. (2019) Breast Cancer Diagnostic Efficacy in a Developing South-East Asian Country. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. DOI: 10.31557/APJCP.2019.20.3.727

How have you worked towards increasing the value of STEM education at your school? Have these plans ever involved collaborating with people outside your school community?

In this project, students worked closely with real-world data. Think about an upcoming science unit you’re teaching. Is there room to incorporate real-world data? How could this enhance student learning?