Jane Wright: Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

A part of her students’ lives

Students at Adelaide’s Loreto College have been investigating extra-sensory perception, finding the best way to neutralise spills of household cleaners, and testing the antibiotic effects of Manuka honey. They present their results not just by writing reports, but using talks, videos, role-plays and stories. Their activities are typical of the practical, can-do attitude of their science coordinator, Dr Jane Wright. It’s an attitude she’s also applied in her leadership of her chosen profession.

“Jane is highly regarded for her outstanding contribution to science teaching,” says Ms Jan Althorp, a former Executive Director of the Australian Science Teachers Association. “Her (very) active involvement within her school, the state and national professional associations has been extraordinary over 20 years. I don’t think she sleeps!”

For her work in developing curriculum, teachers and a generation of young women, Dr Jane Wright receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

VIDEO: Jane Wright


Jane always harboured aspirations to become a teacher. “I’ve always enjoyed the idea of teaching. I actually found one of my essays that I wrote when I was a kid where I said I wanted to be a teacher.” At the time, she was thinking of being a history teacher.

However, after graduating with an honours degree in zoology at the University of Adelaide, she enrolled in a PhD and completed a postdoctoral fellowship with a view to teaching at the tertiary level. When she wasn’t rewarded with a position at the university, she decided to go for a job in a school to gain experience, before trying again.

Jane Wright with one of her Loreto College students (credit: Prime Minister's Science Prizes/Bearcage)

Her first teaching position was at Loreto, and she’s been there ever since. “I think school teaching is fantastic. And I just love teaching here so much that I never even looked at another school, let alone back at the university.”

“It’s not just about teaching the students science, it’s actually being part of their lives. When my first Year 8 class graduated from Year 12, I felt a real sense of achievement which has never left. It’s about developing their thought processes, and watching them grow up.”

And grow up they have. “I have had a number of emails from ex-students telling me about what they are doing. We’ve had girls go on to do PhDs in neuroscience, and many are pursuing careers in medicine and dentistry.”

Jane Wright (credit: Prime Minister's Science Prizes/Bearcage)

Her job has certainly not been a sinecure. “She provides professional leadership to the science faculty of 12 teachers and two laboratory staff. She supports the faculty members by mentoring, provision of professional development and the development of long term and short term faculty goals,” Jan Althorp writes. “She coordinates the curriculum design and delivery in General Science from Years 6–10 and Senior Years biology, scientific studies, physics, chemistry and psychology.”

“Her leadership role involves ensuring the science team at Loreto meets the changing needs of students and the community and are inspired by the latest curriculum reforms. Jane monitors and develops methods of assessment and reporting in science. In her current leadership role she ensures the efficient and safe functioning of the science laboratories; and manages the departmental budget in order to maintain and develop suitable teaching resources.”

And ever since she moved into secondary teaching, Jane has been heavily involved in curriculum development. “About eight years ago the South Australian Certificate of Education Board put psychology into its Senior Certificate. Another teacher at Loreto, who had a psychology degree, talked to me about it, and we decided we’d bring it in at Loreto. The reason was that the girls really enjoy biology, and group work, and thinking about how the mind works. It has turned out to be a very popular subject, and we’ve got some great results.”

Jane Wright running a hands-on experiment with students from Loreto College (credit: Prime Minister's Science Prizes/Bearcage)

Jane also saw a need to provide more at Loreto for talented students so she enrolled in a Graduate Certificate in Gifted Education at Flinders University, a qualification which focused on policy development, curriculum development and the social and emotional aspects of giftedness.

She is so enthusiastic about what she does that sometimes she can leap before she looks. “When I put in my application that I enjoyed bushwalking and, as a student teacher, had taken a group of schoolchildren into the bush, the nuns at Loreto who interviewed me seemed very interested. ‘Would you be able to take a group into the Flinders Ranges?’ one of them asked. ‘Oh, yes,’ I said, because I wanted the job. But little did I know what was in store.”

Jane recently coordinated her 26th week-long, annual camp in the Flinders Ranges for 90 Year 11 girls and 13 staff. The students leave their mobile phones at home, and engage in a plethora of cross-disciplinary studies. They examine distributions of plants and animals and their relationship to the environment, and compare salt concentrations in the creeks with samples from Adelaide. They explore landforms, weathering and erosion, as well as the impact of feral animals. Local Aboriginal people work with them to broaden their understanding of Indigenous culture. And they become involved in art activities and creative writing.

The program is typical of Jane’s hands-on approach to science, where girls who are about to be tested for their driver’s licences measure the speed and braking of cars along busy Adelaide roads, and biology lessons are sometimes held in the beautiful gardens surrounding Loreto, or at the school pond.

Community service also plays a central role in Jane’s life. “I feel that it’s really important that all of us contribute in some way. It’s not enough just to live, I really want to put something back into the community. And that is one of the reasons I like Loreto—because it’s about serving others. It matches my life principles.”

Jane Wright (credit: Prime Minister's Science Prizes/Bearcage)

For Jane, “putting something back” has included presidency of both the South Australian and the Australian Science Teachers Associations, and membership of numerous committees involved with teaching standards, awards and professional development. “I have got to know a fantastic community of science teachers, who have enriched my teaching.”

Her enriched teaching has led to a string of awards including the Shell National Science Teacher Award in 1992, the BHP Billiton National Science Teacher Award and a Credit Union SA Award for Outstanding Science Teacher in 2010, and now the Prime Minister’s Prize.

Not that she spends all her waking hours teaching. Jane still plays top-grade squash two or three times a week, and she and her partner are ‘custodians’ of 1,000 hectares of uncleared, native scrub along the Murray River. “It’s under a heritage agreement. We’re not going to build a house there. We just watch the animals, and count the butterflies.”

Qualifications

2008 Certificate IV in Business (Frontline Management), Technical and Further Education (TAFE)
2002 Graduate Certificate in Gifted Education, Flinders University, Adelaide
1996 Graduate Certificate in Education (Professional Practice), University of South Australia, Adelaide
1984 Diploma of Education, University of Adelaide
1983 PhD (Zoology), University of Adelaide
1974 Bachelor of Science (Honours), University of Adelaide

Career highlights

2010 Honorary Life Membership of South Australian Science Teachers Association (SASTA)
2010 Award for Outstanding Science Teacher, Credit Union SA
2010-present Board member, Sciworld, South Australia
2010 National winner, BHP Billiton Science Teacher Award
2008-present Convenor MASA (Australian Science Teachers’ Association’s (ASTA) Middle Years Conference)
2008-present Vice President, SASTA
2007 SASTA Honour Award
2005–present Science Coordinator, Years 6–12, Loreto College, Adelaide
2004–2006 Program Director, CONASTA 2006 (ASTA’s national conference)
2001 ASTA Distinguished Service Award
2000–2006 Board Member, Investigator Science & Technology Centre, South Australia
1999–2002 Chair of the National Science Standards Committee, ASTA
1998–1999 President, ASTA
1998 SASTA Medal
1994–1996 President, SASTA
1992 Shell National Science Teacher Award
1991–2005 Science Coordinator Years 8–12, Loreto College
1990–1991 Year 11 Coordinator, Loreto College
1985–present Teacher, Loreto College
1983–1984 Postdoctoral Fellow, Zoology Department, University of Adelaide
1980–1983 Part-time Tutor in Zoology, University of Adelaide
1975–1980 Tutor in Zoology, University of Adelaide