In Term 2 this year, I had the pleasure of visiting St Joseph's School - Tara, Meandarra State School, Glenmorgan State School, and tiny but mighty Teelba State School. St Joseph's is the largest of these schools with 19 students in a combined Years 4-6 class, and is the closest to Brisbane at 300km away. All other schools I visited had less than 30 students, total! Meandarra, Glenmorgan, and Teelba are the smallest schools of my Darling Downs South West regional visits, with roughly 10 students in each combined Years 4-6 class, and are 360, 380, and 430km from Brisbane, respectively. For the sake of comparison, Teelba is roughly the same distance from Brisbane, as Lyon (France) is from Milan (Italy)...
Driving out to these farther schools really gives you a sense of how geographically isolated the communities are, and makes the education these teachers are providing all the more important, yet more challenging in terms of giving tangible, real-world examples. For the seismograph design challenge task however, the real-world relevance and importance of seismology was sadly demonstrated the week before my first visit with a devastating earthquake in Nepal. Teachers seized the learning opportunity - students had all read about it in their local newspaper and had even started researching new vocabulary from those reports.
At all schools, the students were excited and very receptive of the hands-on elements of the task. They were keen to contribute to the discussion, demonstrated by consistent hands up in response to my leading and probing questions - used to direct the lesson - and verbally reporting back to the group with little hesitation, if any, on the type of fault line they modelled, their observations, and their informed and reasoned opinion on which model best represented how their fault line behaved in real life. Seeing, doing, and becoming the “expert” on a particular type of fault line equipped them with the confidence to make judgement calls about what they observed, based on their new knowledge and inferences.
Ms Sullivan, at Glenmorgan State School, was impressively prepared for our first visit. The timing of the lesson meant that we could discuss the expectations and desired outcomes of the students with her in advance of commencing the lesson. Ms Sullivan was so involved that she sat during the lesson and took notes along with the students, reiterating certain points and making explicit links between past lesson content and the new information they were receiving from me - a "team-teaching" approach which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend to my fellow YSAs.
I absolutely LOVE getting out of the lab and into the fresh country air, taking my passion for science and scientific literacy to students who are otherwise quite unlikely to have contact with a "REAL LIVE SCIENTIST". Students often ask where my white lab coat is, and I must admit, I take a certain amount of pleasure in busting that awkward-geeky-labcoat-and-goggle-wearing stereotype; showing that anyone and everyone can do STEM and be a "whole", multifacted person, too. I love the intelligent and wide-ranging questions our students ask about "How?" and "Why?" - and "Why NOT!?" I love that a few hours spent with these enthusiastic young investigators reinvigorates my own motivation for the research I do, and serves to remind me how important it is to keep asking questions. I love knowing that I am making a positive impact on the lives of young people - tomorrow's STEM experts! - and opening up new ways of thinking, deepening their learning, and broadening their career aspirations.
This is why I love being a YSA; why I believe so strongly in having a diverse group of YSAs mentoring in our open-ended, exploratory challenge tasks and student conference model. Students (and teachers!) get a taste of what it IS to conduct research into relevant, real world problems, test hypotheses, collect and interpret data from rigorous fair tests, then not only present but DEFEND their methods and conclusions to their peers. They learn much more than just the superficial STEM basics you might expect. The challenge task is an opportunity to learn life skills like team work, conflict resolution, the confidence to voice ideas and build on other's ideas, to focus effort on a long term goal and achieve your aim, and reflect along the way on what went well and what could be improved. At conference students learn to give and receive constructive criticism, work as a team and think on their feet to answer unscripted questions about their research, participate in public speaking, interact with new acquaintances from their region. Everyone leaves the conference a little taller than when they arrived, having had such a positive and engaging experience culminate in a day of celebrating and sharing their work. And yes, you guessed, I love that too!