3 reasons why students are switching off science

There is a decline in student interest in science. Just type “students decline science” and hundreds of articles will come up of students not choosing to study science in post-compulsory schooling in countries like Australia, USA and the UK. At a time where technology is rapidly increasing and the world is facing issues like climate change, rapid rates of extinction, water shortage and food shortage, it is worrying to see students switching off science.

What I find more concerning is my observations that kids love watching science YouTube channels at home in their own time, but they are not enjoying school science. Something is wrong. While the reasons below for why students are switching off science are not validated by any research data, they are inklings that I have based on observations of students and numerous student surveys completed at my school on their engagement in science.

Reason #1 – Science teachers rely too much on whiz-bang experiments to make science interesting

I think every science teacher is guilty of this. I certainly am. We often use showy experiments for entertainment to keep students engaged. Instead of promoting our subject as intrinsically interesting, we use colourful and bubbly experiments to “trick” students into liking science. How many times do we have students walk into a science lab and ask “are we doing an experiment today” and groan when the answer is no. Of course experiments have a place in science, but science isn’t about setting things on fire or making things explode. Science is a way of thinking and aligns with humans’ natural curiosity of understanding of the world around us. I think we have pushed science as a subject of fire and explosions for so long that this is what students expect and they are disappointed when a unit of work or a series of lessons do not have experiments.

Reason #2 – Science lessons often do not allow all students to experience some success

In NSW, Australia, Year 8 students do a state-wide test called Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA). At the end of ESSA, students are asked to rank their favourite subjects. Since 2006, year after year the results show students like PDHPE and Visual Art the most. My gut feeling is that these subjects allow ALL students to experience some success. In Visual Art, it doesn’t matter if you are a not-so-good painter or if you are as brilliant as Picasso, every single student is able to produce an artwork, which is showcased. Same with PDHPE, it doesn’t matter how bad or good you are at sport, every single student have been part of a team that has won a game and experienced the excitement of success. Not so in science. In many science lessons, students don’t produce anything that can be showcased. Only a handful of student who are “good” at science feel success. A lot of students think they are “bad” at science. This is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of project based learning (PBL). PBL enables students to create a product that shows their learning and they showcase that product to an authentic audience. This give students a sense of success.

Reason #3 – Students don’t know the careers that science can lead to

Not many students see scientists in their everyday lives. They see bankers, accountants, lawyers but they rarely see scientists or associate jobs with science. In the surveys at my school, the most common reason given for not wanting to study science in post-compulsory schooling is that they don’t need science for their job or career. While we as science teachers know that many jobs and careers require some understanding of science, do our students know? Do we link our students to current practicing scientists so they can what they learn in school is actually used in people’s jobs in real life?

At my school we have been pushing for connections with university pHd students and current scientists. Through the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), our students have been lucky enough to go to the university regularly and hear about current research conducted pHd students and meet scientists face-to-face and know that science can lead to a fulfilling career. We have utlised the scientists in schools program to have a scientist come to talk to our students about what she does in her everyday job and why finds her job fun and rewarding. We also ask parents to come to school and speak to our students. This year, we had a parent who works in the communications industry speak to our students about his job, how it requires an understanding of energy transmission and waves and how much he loves his job.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

And has all this gotten results? Many of our year 10 students apply to attend UTS summer school where they can choose from film, design, science, IT and health over the Christmas holidays. In previous years I have struggled to get any students to apply for the science summer school. Everyone wanted to film and design. After a couple of years of connecting students with university science students and real scientists, we have 12 students apply for science summer school this year.

As we are entering the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum in NSW, it is time that science teachers re-think HOW we teach science and how can we work with the scientific community to increase student engagement in science.

 

School holidays – the perfect time to learn from other schools

“I don’t know why you would even think about going near any school while you’re on holidays”

This is what one teacher said to me when I told them that I was going to spend half a day visiting a school during the school holidays. At the moment it is the Term 3 school holidays in New South Wales, Australia. For me teaching isn’t something I can switch off. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my down time and I think this down time is important for all teachers’ wellbeing. But I personally like to take advantage of the school holidays and use the time to visit schools that are outside the NSW public education system. Especially schools that are drastically different to the one I currently teach in because what I’ve learnt is that almost every school faces a similar set of challenges whether it is student engagement, student wellbeing or finding ways to develop students higher-order thinking. I find that when I visit schools that have different circumstances than my own, I am exposed to different solutions that I can adapt to my own school and my own classes.

Over the past two years I have been able to visit schools outside of New South Wales and outside of Australia, and they have been some of the best professional learning I have ever had. While some of these visits were done during term time, most visits were done during school holidays. Here are some of the schools I’ve visited and what I’ve learnt from them.

During my time with Microsoft’s Partners in Learning team in 2012, I was able to travel to Auckland, New Zealand and visit Ferguson Intermediate School and Howick College. These two schools kick-started my journey and my faculty’s journey into using the Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) framework, learning intentions and success criteria to design learning for the new science syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. Howick College is also where I saw the fantastic Julia Breen and got ideas from her on how to use green screens in student-produced videos.

I took a week of without pay from school in December 2012 and travelled to London and visited ACS International School, Egham. I ‘met’ the Principal of ACS International School, Egham online via LinkedIn and he was kind enough to take time out to show me his school for half a day. I was also privileged enough to speak to their Head of Science and observed a part of a middle school science lesson. During this visit I learnt more about the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program and how technology was integrated into the school’s middle years science program.

Just last week I was able to visit two schools in Canberra – Brindabella Christian College and Dickson College. I was able to further connect with two passionate educators who are part of my online professional learning network on Twitter, Melanie Spencer and Betty Chau. From these schools I took away ideas for learning space design, how to drive change and how to further develop the digital leaders team at my own school.

Visiting other schools is one of the best professional learning that I undertake. If you’re a teacher and you have some spare time in the school holidays, ask another school if you can visit them and then return the favour to them 🙂

Incidentally I am planning to travel to Tokyo, Japan in the April school holidays in 2014. Would love any suggestions of schools in Tokyo that I can visit.

Small changes can make a huge difference

Over the past few years I have been constantly changing the way I teach due to introduction of 1:1 laptop initiatives in some classes and a continually-developing understanding of how students learn. In a lot of cases it has involved turning things upside down and completely rewriting units of work. This is tiring. Worth it but tiring. But I found out recently that small, minor changes can make a huge difference too. The Student Research Project (SRP) has been around since I was in high school. It’s an oldie but a goodie. The SRP involves students planning, doing and reporting on an experiment of their choice. It is a compulsory activity for all Year 7-10 students in NSW, Australia. Each student must do at least one SRP once in Year 7 and 8, and another one in Year 9 and 10. By doing the SRP, students learn how to design a fair experiment, a must-have skill for all scientists! See here for more info on the SRP.

It was the Year 8’s turn to do the SRP in September this year. The traditional way of doing the SRP is for students to choose an experiment, plan it, do it and then submit a written report. This year my faculty decided to revamp it and not just rehash the status quo. However this didn’t involve major changes that would stress everyone out. It involved a few tweaks that would have the most impact. Like always we gave students the choice of whatever experiment they wanted. My class were doing experiments ranging from water absorption of different types of soils to whether particular types of video games would improve people’s reaction times to using Gary’s Mod to run a simulated experiment. However instead of forcing students to do a written report, we decided to let students choose how to present their SRP findings in whatever medium they wanted. Some students still chose to submit a written report (but by sharing it as a Google document to make the feedback process more efficient) while other students chose to create Prezis or videos. Students had to justify why their chosen medium would be the most effective in communicating their findings to others. At the conclusion of the SRP, students shared their findings with their class over a two-day conference, just like real scientists.

In the presentations I would usually get students to give each other feedback (one medal and one mission) by writing it down on a piece of paper, which I will take home and collate and then give back to students. This was a really inefficient way of doing it. Students had to wait at least 24 hours to get peer feedback and it took me time to type of the students’ feedback. This time I decided to create a backchannel on Edmodo that students used to give feedback to each presenter. Students did this by using laptops. A designated student had the role of creating a post for each presenter and then the whole class will reply to that post with a medal and mission for the presenter. Doing it this way meant that the presenter got the feedback as soon as they finished presenting; they didn’t have to wait till the next day after I’ve collated the class’ feedback. Students really liked the immediacy of the feedback they got from the Edmodo backchannel. There was also one student who made a video for his SRP, but he was ill over the two days of the presentations. His video was still shown and he was able to receive feedback on it at home from his peers via the Edmodo backchannel.

A sample of the Edmodo backchannel

So just with a little of tweaking, the good ol’ SRP has been thrusted into the 21st century. I didn’t have to completely re-write it or turn it upside down. Just by adding Google docs, more student choice and Edmodo, the SRP was made a million times better for students as a learning process. From the end-of-term evaluations, many students from across all Year 8 classes identified the SRP to be their favourite activity this term because it gave them choice, it let them use technology and they learnt by doing.

Next time I’d like to have students sharing their findings with a global audience, or at least with an audience beyond their class. But one small step at a time 🙂

Using video as evidence of learning

Today my Year 8s used lollies and toothpicks to model elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures. This isn’t anything new. Lots of teachers and students have done this before. However, I decide to allow students to film themselves explaining how the lolly models they made represent elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures as evidence of learning. For one group, I decided to record a question-and-answer conversation on my iPad.

The video showed that this student understood to a certain extent how particles are arranged in elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures. The student did accurately use the lollies for this, but upon questioning, she was confused about how many different types of particles made up her lolly models of compounds and mixtures.

I’d like this type of evidence of learning to be prominent in schools. As a system I think we rely too heavily on written exams and assignments to elicit student understanding of concepts. Having videos such as the one shown above is much more powerful to give feedback to students and to use as evidence of learning. Eventually I’d like each of teacher in my faculty to a collection of videos like this for professional discussions on our students’ learning.

What do students think of their learning?

Student voice is something that I really value. In the perfect world students would have a complete say in what they learn and how they learn. But in the meantime the confines of syllabuses I still like to give my students a say in the learning that’s happening in the classroom. What things do they like learning about? How do they like to learn? Is what they are learning too difficult or too easy? What parts of the classroom learning design do they think needs improvement? What can I do as their teacher to make learning better for them?

My Year 8 class gave their feedback on their learning this week as Term 2 in NSW, Australia drew to a close. Here’s what they thought:

infographic of evaluation results

 

The main topic we studied in Term 2 was called Water Water Everywhere, which is essentially using the particle model to explain the properties of solids, liquids and gases and why one state of matter changes to another when energy is added or removed from the system. This topic is probably one of the most difficult and often disengaging topic for students because it involves an abstract concept. The particle model lends itself to a lot of student misconceptions and is generally something students find difficult to understand, which I have discussed in a previous post. To overcome this the learning was designed so to involve lots of interesting hands-on experiences such as making quicksand and using technology for students to increase their conceptual understanding and allow their misconceptions to be picked more and addressed more frequently.

From the students’ feedback, scientific metalanguage was emphasised as an area they thought needed improvement, so next topic there will be more activities that emphasise the use of scientific metalanguage.

What I also find interesting is students’ decisions on whether they will continue with Science in the post-compulsory years of schooling. What I find particularly interesting is that quite a few students who consistently say they find the learning in Year 8 science fun, interesting and related to the real world, do not want to study science in Year 11 & 12 because their chosen career does not need science. There seems to be a perception with my Year 8s that science in Year 11 and 12 are for people who want to be scientists. This perception is also found in evaluations completed by Year 9 and 10 students.

So one of my challenges for the rest of the year is how am I going to design the learning for these students value science and view it as important to learn, even though they aren’t going to pursue a career in science.

TeachMeet at the Zoo – a different kind of Professional Learning

Last week I had the privilege of leading a science-flavoured TeachMeet with Matt Esterman at Taronga Zoo. With a great view of the monkeys at the zoo, over 70 educators from pre-service teachers, primary school teachers, high school teachers, university staff and other educational institutions, gathered to share ideas on ways to make learning more effective for our students. There were teachers from government schools, Catholic schools and independent schools sharing their classroom practice with each other with the aim of improving teaching and learning for all students.

We had presentations on differentiated learning, learning design, inquiry based learning, using iPads in the science classroom, mash ups, social media and many other ideas and strategies to enhance learning for our students. Mitch Squires and Jackie Slaviero captured the crowd with their talk about NASA space camp. We got to make a pocket solar system with Rob Hollow from CSIRO to experience a way to introduce students to the scale of the universe. We also got to pet a snake to learn about how Taronga Zoo’s education programs are addressing sustainability in the Australian Curriculum.

 

What I really like about TeachMeet is that it is a different kind of professional learning. You get to see real teachers sharing ideas and strategies they have implemented in their classrooms. You build cross-sector networks and have opportunities to share and learn from teachers from government, Catholic and independent schools. You are also exposed to many new ideas in a very short amount of time.

What I like most of all is that teachers volunteer to attend TeachMeets. Teachers attend out of their own time because they want to learn. Presenters are not paid (they might receive a chocolate koala for their efforts) and are sharing their practice because they want to. I think this really shows the collaborative and generous nature of teaching as a profession.

So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, it is very worthwhile to check one out. If you been to one, I’m sure you will go to another one very soon. To find out more about TeachMeets in Sydney visit this website and join the Facebook group.

The challenges of PBL in a traditional school structure

I’ve been trialling project based learning for about a year. Last year I was lucky enough to have a year 7 class for 14 hours a week for 5 different subjects so I was able to easily design and implement cross-curriculuar units of work that were framed  by project based learning. This year I’m back to traditional high school teaching where I see kids for 60 minutes at a time. I had to change my game plan for project based learning. What I have found most challenging is balancing the students’ passion for learning with ‘getting through the syllabus’.

I’ve just finished a unit called ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’, which is basically a unit on ecosystems and food webs. I modified the unit with a PBL framework. Instead of just looking at food web diagrams in a textbook or playing with interactive food webs online, students acted as scientists and produced a product for a shark scientists conference to convince the community whether sharks are our friends or foes in the midst of all the media attention on shark attacks.

The project was done throughout the unit in different stages and students also had to learn about population sampling techniques, food webs and how energy flows through ecosystems. During the unit they also had a real shark scientist talk to them.

From the results in the students’ pre-tests and post tests, all students made huge progress in their understanding of ecological relationships. On average students improved over 40% between their pre-test scores and their post-test scores.

In comparison to last year, the students’ teamwork skills and self-regulation skills have massively improved. My main challenge this year is time. PBL takes time. A lot more time than traditional teaching. The unit that ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’ is based on is supposed to take 5 weeks maximum, but my modified PBL unit took 8 ½ weeks. There were times that I was feeling pressured to rush my students to make sure I don’t fall behind and so that I can get through the syllabus in time. Last year, I saw my students for large blocks of time (5 hours straight twice a week) and they can use these chunks of time to work on their movies, posters and other products for their projects. This year I see them for 3 separate hours a week and this lack of continuity makes the product creation process a lot more challenging.

But does it have to be this way?

This term I realised that I wished high schools did not to have separate subjects. I wish schools didn’t require students to walk in and out of classrooms like they are on a conveyor belt.

I wish every unit was cross-curricular so that subject experts can work together as a team and students can have more time to develop their passions for learning and be knowledge creators rather than just consumers. If you need 4 hours straight to work on a science/maths/geography project then you should be able to do it without being prevented by a timetable structure. Is there a reason why we need to have separate subjects? What is the reason for timetables?

I don’t have the answer or solutions to these questions, but I hope education is moving towards this direction. In the meantime I’m going to take small steps. I’ll continue with PBL with my year 8s and have already approached another faculty at my school to design and implement a cross-curricular PBL unit.