Passionate teacher and geoscientist Suzy Urbaniak won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools after pioneering hands-on science education.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I was a geologist and I couldn’t do that job and support my three kids at the same time. I chose teaching because it was compatible with school hours – I had no aspirations to be a teacher!
I soon realised that little had changed in education since I was a school student. There was a disconnect between being a scientist and working in industry and what was happening in science education. The emphasis was on exams and tests and the content dot points – all about knowledge acquisition, rather than hands-on science enquiry.
Science is about doing, not knowing. When I started as a geo, I thought ‘Why did I go to school?’ – I realised I really hadn’t been taught the skills I needed.
Western Australia is a resource hot spot and I couldn’t believe there were only four schools that were teaching Earth and environmental awareness so I went on a crusade to create homegrown talent to service our industry. I created the Centre of Resources Excellence (CoRE) program at Kent St Senior High School, where students undertake hands-on science in the fields of mining, energy and earth sciences.
Do you teach science alone, or does your program bring in other curricula areas such as technology, maths, or history?
I’m bringing other curricula areas into science. There’s a traditional mindset in education that is a huge roadblock to progress and that requires systemic change. I’m planning to form a non-profit group to create a critical mass to get the change we need to see in the education system.
The focus is too much on exams and letting the textbook be the rule of education. The textbook becomes defunct as soon as it is produced. There is so much new knowledge that is changing the whole perception of science theories, but isn’t being translated quickly enough into the classroom. I use social media to keep up to date with science learning.
All elements of the CoRE program are designed with STEAM in mind and students have to demonstrate the links between STEAM and what they are doing. We don’t spoonfeed – the students facilitate their own development. They form business units where they allocate the various elements of their project to different team members to ensure it’s completed. This way, they learn to be autonomous and to take risks.
I find that new teachers with industry training quickly get vacuumed into the old system, and that’s the problem. They think, “Let’s learn to pass exams” rather than “What skills have you have acquired?”. The basis of my model is intrapersonal skills, where students learn to measure, observe and record – to let the data tell the story.
Science is doing, and science is allowing you to explore – that is why investigation, enquiry and hands-on science needs to be the basis of all learning. When kids have those technical skills, they can use the internet to acquire knowledge. CoRE is about students taking responsibility for their education, about making them confident so they know why they’re learning. If they know why, they are motivated to learn.
What are the ingredients to success in creating a hands-on science program to improve student learning?
CoRE has been a ten year journey and there have been many roadblocks. Our greatest motivation has been our belief that society needs a modern approach to education. The Dip Ed’s I have as part of the CoRE team believe in that.
I brought my experiences from an industry model into the classroom. For example, at the end of a problem-based learning activity in CoRE, each business unit of students has to present their information and demonstrate all of the elements, so it’s like they’re out in the real world.
The biggest barriers to progress are educators who are unwilling to translate what they do over to this new model. My metrics have demonstrated this model results in student engagement and improvement in their work, and that’s what learning should be about.
How do you extend the program outside of the classroom to engage with industry, parents and others?
I’ve invited government bodies, industries and schools to be part of CoRE. They support it financially and sometimes in kind. I’ve sourced over $80,000 in funding from industry to help run the program.
We might do some professional development with them and connect with industry to see what their latest science is. I also have alumni who come in and give back and chat to the kids about their journey.
What’s the missing piece of the puzzle? What tools would help you to ease your workload or extend your program?
I use 3D printer and data and analytical tools and so on, but I’m truly of the opinion that it’s the learning environment that makes the difference. The students have to adapt to be part of a new system, so when they face the challenges of new learning pathways, it’s important we help them understand what is happening in the real world and why this new approach to education is valuable to their future.
Science is not about chocolate cake recipes, it’s about communicating your understanding – so there needs to be a literacy and numeracy component.
I also think it’s important for quality science education that teachers get some experience as a scientist or engineer and ‘do it’ first.
What are you hoping to do next?
I hope to have the CoRE program out there and facilitated by its own school, then Kent Street High School would become the lighthouse school. There’s a model in the USA around charter schools where you get many people on the same page and create a way to incite systemic change and work as a lighthouse school to present a cross-curricula program that other schools can use. That’s the goal.
You have to innovate otherwise you won’t develop people who can deal with the social and science issues of the future. You need transferable skills, and you need to embrace change as a pathway rather than fighting change.
Our kids have been brought up that mistakes are wrong, but failure is a learning pathway and embracing change is exciting. Until we change our own mindset, our kids we won’t see that.