2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

Prime Minister's Prizes for Science

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A taste of real-world science to take to the real world

Geoff McNamara (Photo credit: WildBear)

Geoff McNamara (Photo credit: WildBear)

From the moment students step into ‘Mr Mac’s Lab’, they’re greeted by dinosaurs, skeletons, spacecraft and a model galaxy that hovers overhead. Their eyes can’t help but gravitate towards the huge solar system at the back of the room. No matter where they look, Geoff McNamara wants his students learn something about science—whether the students realise they’re learning or not.

At Melrose High School in Canberra, science teacher Geoff McNamara (known to his students as Mr Mac) has created a hothouse of science learning—complete with a seismometer, GPS antenna, and weather station, each transmitting real-time data straight into the classroom. In addition, he coordinates regular visits from practising scientists, and science field trips.

It’s an environment where every student can see the impact of science in daily life. “We all need science literacy to navigate the complexity of modern world,” he says. So he reaches out to each student’s interests—from genetics to driving to cosmology— to demonstrate the inevitable relevance of science.

For higher-achieving science students Geoff developed Academic Curriculum Extension (ACE) Science, which he has been piloting at Melrose High School since 2008. The extension program connects students with working scientists and engages them in a wide range of real-world science investigations. ACE Science has been so successful he is now offering it to other schools.

For his contributions to science teaching and inspiring students in science—wherever their further studies and careers may take them—Mr Geoff McNamara has been awarded the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.


Geoff McNamara’s citation in full

It was Geoff’s own uninspiring experience as a high school science student that compelled him to re-think how science could be explored in the classroom.

“I had a dreadful experience in science at school,” says Geoff. “The empty green-box laboratories and sterile teaching that I grew up with made me want to do better than that for my students, and make science more real and engaging.”

Leaving school at Year 11, Geoff trained in optics and worked as an optical mechanic and optical dispenser as well as a TAFE teacher for many years before turning to science teaching, at the age of 40. Over the years though he maintained his interest in science, publishing over 100 articles in Australian and international science magazines and writing three books on gravitational waves, dark matter and pulsars, two of which he co-authored with astronomers.

It’s these extra activities that have influenced his unique perspective on communicating science, and his ability to network with practising scientists.

Bringing scientists into the classroom is something that Geoff is passionate about, and has become a key element of the ACE Science program.

“We have so much talent in Australia in terms of science, engineering and technology, and I want the students to meet these people, and to show them that ‘this is what you could be doing in a few years’ time’,” says Geoff.

“I tell my students, it’s like you’re standing in the doorway of a lolly shop—you can’t have everything but you can have anything,” says Geoff. “I try and show them the variety that’s available, so they can decide which branch of science speaks to them.”

By heading out to the local universities and CSIRO, Geoff has collected about 100 scientists and engineers ‘on the books’ who either come in to talk to his students about their work and answer questions from the class, or host the students in their laboratories.

“My goal is to bring in a scientist who represents a different branch of science every fortnight over the course of the program,” says Geoff. “It teaches the students to ask good questions and challenge scientific ideas, and also breaks down some of the perceived barriers between the scientists and the students.”

Meeting scientists is just one of the ways that Geoff gives his ACE Science students a feel for how science works in the real world. They also design their own experiments to verify known scientific phenomena.

But Geoff doesn’t really expect his students’ results to ‘prove’ anything—apart from the uncertainty and variation of their measurements.

“I teach all my students that there’s no such thing as ‘scientific proof’,” says Geoff, “but rather, how closely do your measurements imply a particular result?

“What we have is evidence and, no matter how carefully you make a measurement, it’s going to have some uncertainty.

“So I teach the students right from the beginning to calculate uncertainty. This shows them that there’s no proof, but you can get very good evidence, which is a fundamental aspect of science. This open-ended nature of science is its ultimate strength and the students need to understand that.”

Outside the ACE Science program, Geoff has developed some novel ways to demonstrate to his students how scientific concepts are present all around them—quite literally. For example, Geoff demonstrates how even the smallest student can ‘flex’ the brick wall of his classroom by pushing it—as measured with a carefully placed mirror and laser.

Geoff knows that most of his students won’t carry on to a career in science—even those who go through the ACE Science program. But he’s content about that.

“All I want is for them to take away some appreciation of what science is, and who practises it, and how central it is to modern life. That’s important to understand in any career.”

The large model Sun in his classroom serves as a lasting reminder of this goal. It was put together by a disengaged student who wasn’t all that interested in science, so Geoff set him a special task that was tailored to the student’s interest in woodworking. The student ended up accidentally learning about the solar system, as well as woodworking, in the process.

To support those with a deeper interest in science he built the Science Education Centre, a collection of three laboratories where students engage in open-ended investigations. The Centre was funded jointly by the school and contributions from academics and industry scientists. Here, students and scientists work together on investigations designed to match the student’s field of interest.

Several of his students have ended up in scientific pursuits. A growing number of Mr Mac’s alumni—some of whom are studying medicine, plant biology and teaching—have joined the ‘I was taught by Mr Mac’ Facebook group. The 180 group members share updates on their careers, their studies, and their passions for all things science.

To Geoff, this Prime Minister’s Prize award is helping to raise the profile of science teaching in Australia, which he says is underappreciated at times.

“It’s a recognition that what we are doing here in public education is important and is valued.”

Qualifications

2011 Graduate Certificate in Physics Education, University of Canberra
2001 Graduate Diploma in Education (Secondary), Australian Catholic University
1999 Graduate Certificate in Design and Technology, University of Technology, Sydney (UTS)
1997 Communications Studies (specialising in Science Literacy), UTS
1997 Bachelor of Education (Adult Education), UTS
1990 Freelance Journalism, External College of TAFE NSW
1988 Diploma of Teaching (Technical), Institute of Technical and Adult Teacher Education, Sydney College of Advanced Education

Career highlights

2014 Negotiated $25 000 from a private benefactor for an Astronomical Teaching Observatory to be built at University of Canberra
2014 Launch of the ACE Science Education Centre incorporating instrumentation for student-centred investigations, including spectroscope, data loggers, microscopes, weather station, seismometer, Global Navigation Satellite System antenna
2014 National Award recipient, National Excellence in Teaching Award, Australian Scholarships Group
2013 State Award recipient, National Excellence in Teaching Award, Australian Scholarships Group
2012 Australian Museum Eureka Prize (Science or Mathematics Teaching)
2012 Gordon Aitchison Prize for Physics, University of Canberra
2011 Dean’s Excellence Awards, Semesters 1 and 2, Faculty of Education, University of Canberra
2010 Australian National University Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching
2009 Australian Academy of Science Teacher Award (ACT)
2008 – ongoing Developing and delivering ACE Science, Years 8–10, Melrose High School, Canberra
2008 Published: Geoff McNamara, 2008, Clocks in the Sky—the Story of Pulsars, Praxis/Springer
2006 Published: Ken Freeman and Geoff McNamara, 2006, In Search of Dark Matter, Praxis/Springer
2001 – ongoing Teacher, Years 7–10 (general science, astronomy, mathematics, design and technology, woodwork), Campbell High School, Melrose High School, Canberra
1997 Published: David Blair and Geoff McNamara, 1997, Ripples on a Cosmic Sea: the search for gravitational waves, Allen & Unwin
1986 – 1999 Teacher, Ophthalmic Optics, Communications, Sydney Institute of TAFE

 

Further Reading


www.melrosehs.act.edu.au
Facebook: ‘I was taught by Mr Mac’ Facebook group www.facebook.com/groups/88332526602

 

Geoff McNamara (Photo credit: WildBear)

Geoff McNamara (Photo credit: WildBear)

 

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Geoff McNamara (Photo credit: WildBear)