Q: How did you go from working in the field as an environmental consultant to working in classrooms as a science educator?
A: I really enjoyed working in environmental rehabilitation in Sydney’s bushland areas, but found myself wanting to educate people about what is happening in their world.
I enrolled in a postgraduate position as a science teacher and was soon teaching in Western Sydney. I had never seen ‘science communication outreach’ as something that could be done. However, chance had it that I came across CSIRO Education during a teacher personal development session.
Seeing that this type of education could reach thousands of children every year, I asked how I could be involved. I spent a couple of years doing this and really enjoyed working with the fantastic staff.
But eventually there came a time when I was keen to get back to my old management roots, and wanted to design my own lessons again. So with some trepidation I left the government support mechanisms and salary in 2004 for the private outreach wilderness.
Once Fizzics Education was formed, it was a matter of designing and delivering science classes that would benefit schools, libraries and other organisation in any location.
I was a kid from the bush, so I wanted to start travelling between regional and remote NSW townships running science classes – going places that had rarely, if ever, had science outreach at their doorstep.
After several years running back and forth seven days a week, it was time to get some help. Slowly but surely, we could support more and more staff as a growing number of schools and other organisations joined with us.
Travelling around regional Australia highlighted the critical need for cost-effective science enrichment in remote primary schools, so in 2010 we began to teach science classes via video conference to children in outback Australia.
Constantly touring and delivering science shows, workshops and video conferences around NSW and beyond became the norm, so we began looking at other areas that might benefit. We took a risk and set up staff in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.
Building on this, I was lucky enough to receive a 2013 Churchill Fellowship to travel overseas to study best practice in science education via video conference, and bring these findings back to museums, zoos, aquariums and schools so that students all across Australia could benefit from high quality science instruction.
As of July 2015, Fizzics Education has reached about 215,000 students and delivered classes in roughly 400 schools per year in Australia and overseas. It’s amazing to think it all started in a spare bedroom!
Q: What are some topics that you’ve had a harder time communicating?
A: Designing outreach programs that demonstrate difficult concepts is the real fun in science communication. I’ve often found that topics requiring some sort of spatial reasoning and abstract thinking are the more challenging to present to students, but they’re the most rewarding to teach because you get to see the ‘I get it now!’ face and know you’ve done well.
In terms of specific topics, I enjoy discussing general and special relativity, as well as the weirder aspects of quantum theory with high school students; you get the most interesting questions from the students and the answers can take you to some very strange places!
Then again, it’s just as interesting to present concepts of weather formation, plate tectonics or energy transfers to primary students. They bring their preconceived ideas into the classroom, and it can be challenging to work out where they are coming from and how to best teach the content.
For the past few years, we’ve been running classes for kids and adults with special needs, which requires some decent thinking around lesson design. Science classes for ESL students can also be challenging (especially via video conference!).
It can be tricky to present science to preschool children, but it works as long as we keep the language simple and the experiments tactile. What’s important is how you make the topic real, engaging and visual; once you work this out, the difficulty of the topic diminishes.
Q: Do you have special tactics for disengaged audiences?
A: It’s often a matter of working out where the students are coming from. Just because you’re totally enthralled with a particular subject doesn’t mean the audience will be. I think that any presentation, whether it’s a workshop or demonstration, should be designed from the audience’s point of view.
Why should they care? How does the concept impact them? How could the topic relate to popular culture or recent events? How can we add a bit of humour to the presentation? Asking these sorts of questions is how I approach working on stage or in the development room.
Getting among the audience by leaving the stage or getting an audience volunteer involved in a fun activity are a couple of ways to engage an audience. But the best way is working out how each member of the audience can join in.
Have a laugh and don’t be uptight – the audience will usually relax and enjoy whatever it is you’re presenting. Of course, sometimes a little less talk and a little more action is preferred!
Q: What are some of the more unusual events you’ve hosted?
A: This could be a long answer! Every year we get requests from all sorts of organisations for science education. Some have been purely fun, like a rocket launching day at a school fete, and others are highly rewarding programs at hospitals and charity events (read more here). But these are some of my favourites:
— In 2013, we were asked by a publicity firm to create a pool of cornflour slime for some Australian Rugby Union team members to run across during the British Lions tour of Australia.
The motto of their sponsor Castrol was ‘strength under pressure’ – hence the analogy of that slippery stunt!
— Earlier this year, we were called out at short notice to South Africa to help out with Scifest Africa, which was an amazing experience… (Holly, you owe me!)
— Some time ago, we ran a forensics segment on Saturday Disney called ‘Who stole the birthday cake?’ We’ve done quite a few TV segments – hats off to the actors, as there’s a lot of work behind the scenes to pull off these off!
— Speaking of TV, we have been lucky to host science birthday parties for a number of celebrities, including an Australian Hollywood A-lister.
— We created a dinosaur discovery trail in Centennial Parklands for Fox Studios Australia for the Walking with Dinosaurs DVD.
— Since early last year, we’ve been working with the NRMA to deliver road safety science workshops across NSW.
— Partnering with the GWS Giants AFL team and Sydney Olympic Park Authority, we were privileged to deliver science and leadership classes via video conference to indigenous students
— Presenting science shows in China last year was fantastic and well worth the effort.
— We presented science shows on Manly Beach surrounded by surfers and boards at Volcom’s ‘Totally Crustaceous’ surf championships.
— Presenting science shows in an IMAX theatre for Hoyts during National Science Week
was a blast!
Q: How about in the classroom?
A: Engineering days have been awesome. There’s a real push for students to learn to deconstruct machines and then use the parts to build their own contraptions. Combining this with robotics and electronics has been a lot of fun.
Some of the best days are when the school goes all out and creates a complete science day. It’s not as common as we would like, but when the effort is made the students have an absolute ball – especially when STEM learning outcomes can be combined with other outcomes such as media creation.
I had a lot of fun guiding three local primary schools to learn how to regenerate bushland pockets on their site and then use the knowledge gained to teach other kids via video conference. Project-based learning is of great interest to me and it was great to refer back to old skills from before I was a teacher.
Q: How do you communicate through ‘science parties’?
A: Science parties might seem a strange avenue for teaching, but they fit with our agenda to get science out to the community. Kids have so much fun doing science in the classroom – why not let them have a play at home?
During these parties, we have a ball showing them how to make gigantic bubbles and slime, launch rockets, make sherbet and more. If the kids are old enough, we’ll show them the properties of liquid nitrogen and use it to make some ice-cream for them too!
The idea is that kids shouldn’t feel they have to be confined to the classroom to learn and, to be honest, they’re often too engaged with the experiments to realise that they’re picking up STEM knowledge. Science by guerrilla tactics? Maybe, but it works!
Q: Do you see teachers implementing STEM-based programs in the schools you visit?
A: All the time! The really inspiring programs I’ve seen are those where STEM has been incorporated in nearly everything that is taught. I’ve seen science incorporated into all sorts of study units. For example, while studying medieval history, the kids made trebuchets. For 20th century art, students connected with a professional restoration artist in a museum.
At their core, good STEM-based programs teach students to control variables, test hypotheses and interpret results. Once students understand the basics, they can apply scientific methodology to nearly any other subject.
You can look at the core concept and then plan an experiment to demonstrate the concept, build the experiment, test it fairly, measure it, draw it, discuss the it, share it on social media… there are so many curriculum outcomes that can be achieved in a STEM-based program. Of course, you expect to see this in high school but more and more primary schools are getting in on the act, even with very limited budgets.
The PrimaryConnections units have done a good job to get primary schools looking at their STEM program. Some primary schools have created mural art about famous scientists or even created timelines since the Big Bang to illustrate the changes over the ages.
I know of a couple of schools who have worked with local shops to create street science fairs as well as invite scientists into their classrooms to speak about careers or organise astronomy nights. Even some preschools have implemented fantastic units of work on space, dinosaurs, light, sound and more.
It all comes down to making the time to develop the programs, being creative and having the will to implement them.