Creating new careers in the rocks: 2009 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

Media releases, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2009


Len Altman

Geoscience is at the heart of some of humanity’s biggest challenges in the 21st Century: access to water; alternative energy sources like geothermal and hydro; and adapting to climate change. “So why,” asks Len Altman, “Are students in our schools more likely to learn about the moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn than about the planet Earth and its history?”

Len is changing that at Marden Senior School and at the schools in his region and state. Along the way he is helping more young people discover science, and helping mature students discover new careers in the minerals industries.

For his achievements in teaching geoscience Len Altman receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.
Len Altman was going to be a dentist—that’s what his mother wanted. But once he was at university it was clear he had made the wrong choice and Len dropped out. He needed work and found it as a geoscience technician with McPhar, a small geophysics company. The work took him exploring around South Australia and then to Canada where he re-entered university, obtaining a geophysics and geology degree from the University of British Columbia in 1972.

A downturn in the minerals industry saw him back in Adelaide and looking for work. South Australia was looking for science teachers and offering anyone with a science degree a job. So Len jumped into teaching, bringing with him his love of geoscience.

Thirty six years later Len is still teaching. He teaches science and maths at Marden Senior College in the eastern suburbs of Adelaide. His enthusiasm for geology still shines through and he’s introducing students of all ages to the potential of geoscience. The number of students doing geoscience has doubled during Len’s time and his students have led the State in their end of year assessment.

Marden also serves as an adult re-entry college so Len is teaching a diverse range of students including recent migrants from Africa, mature age students, and Indigenous students.

His success is best illustrated through the words of some of his students.

One student who came from Africa in 2005 with no skills said, “Len encouraged me to study Geology first and then Vocational Geoscience . . . I have a family to support and needed employment. He recommended me to [a geoscience company] for a trial work placement. Now I am permanent with them and I enjoy my work immensely. I can’t thank Len enough for all of the help he has given me.

A student returning to school after 17 years says, “Len went out of his way to help us get back into study. This was my first experience of being successful as a re-entry student . . . I am finishing Year 12 this year and considering my tertiary options for next year.”

Many of his students have secured jobs in geoexploration. Others have been inspired by his example to pursue science teaching themselves. One says, “Having Len as a teacher was a great experience for me. He stood out . . . showed such passion for the work. He encouraged and mentored me and was inspirational . . . he made me aware of the possibilities and went the extra distance by supporting my transition into a new pathway.”

Len believes that geoscience has an important role in the school curriculum. “We need the earth sciences to help us find a sustainable future in everything from water to alternative energies, geosequestration and the search for new minerals. We need to give our students the conceptual and thinking skills to understand how our planet works, and to help them participate in an informed debate about the future.”

“Furthermore, younger students love the hands-on approach of geoscience. There are indeed strong reasons for geoscience to be included in school curricula, at all levels,” he says.

Len is doing much to spread the word.

He regularly creates opportunities for primary school students to participate in activities in secondary school laboratories and for his own senior secondary students to participate in activities in universities and TAFE colleges. He also mentors trainee science teachers at Flinders University.

He organises geoscience careers nights in collaboration with other schools. They report increased interest in science as a result.

He coordinates the national Teacher Earth Science Education Programme in South Australia—promoting, organising and presenting a series of training workshops in Earth and Environmental Science, for teachers throughout the state.

He has led the creation of Geoscience Pathways—a website which aims to change attitudes towards the Geosciences by demonstrating their essential contribution to modern society. To date, it has brought together 14 schools, nine universities and 23 companies to share ideas, resources and projects.

The results are clear. Marden now has more students in geology and geoscience than any other school in South Australia. And Len’s influence is spreading. Geoscience is again on the rise across South Australia.


1998                Certificate IV Training and Assessment, TAFE SA

1994                Masters of Education (Curriculum Development), University of South Australia

1975                Diploma of Education, University of Adelaide

1972                Bachelor of Science, Honours (Geology and Geophysics), University of British Columbia, Canada

Career highlights, awards, fellowships and grants

2008                The Geological Champion Award, Australian Government’s Science Summer School, Flinders University

2007                National Excellence in Teaching Award, Australian Scholarships Group

2007                South Australian Training Initiative Award for Vocational Geoscience (as designer and teacher/trainer of the award winning VET course)

2005–2009      Science and Maths Teacher, Marden Senior College, South Australia and Coordinator: Geoscience Pathways project and website

1998–2004      Science and Maths Teacher, Port Augusta Secondary School, South Australia

1995–1996      Curriculum Development Lecturer, Batchelor College, Northern Territory

1990–1994      Key Teacher, Elizabeth West Adult Campus, South Australia

1988–1989      Science Teacher, Woodville High School, South Australia

1983–1987      Aboriginal Education Advisor, Enfield Curriculum Unit, South Australia

1979–1982      Science and Aboriginal Education Teacher, Glossop High School, South Australia

1977–1978      Science and Aboriginal Education Teacher, Ceduna Area School, South Australia

1973–1975      Science and Maths Teacher, Campbelltown High School, South Australia

1965–1972      Geophysicist, McPhar Geophysics

Personal highlights

Geoscience Pathways Project for an Adelaide Schools Cluster, 2006

Disused Roadway Revegetation Project, Greening Australia, 1996–1997

Binna Ingarendi, Elizabeth West Adult Campus, South Australia, 1992

Towards a Liberating Aboriginal Pedagogy through Participatory Action Research, thesis while at Elizabeth West Adult Campus, South Australia, 1986

The Unfenced Land: talking and writing together, 1985

Red Gum Revegetation Project, Glossop High School, South Australia, 1982

Working Together for Improvement in Aboriginal Education, 1981

The Overland Corner Walking Trail, Glossop High School, South Australia, 1980


Current            Member of the South Australian Certificate of Education Board Curriculum Leader’s Group for Geology

Current            Member of the South Australian Science Teachers Association

Current            Member of the Geology Advisory Committee for the South Australian Certificate of Education

Current            Member of the South Australian Resources Industry Network Committee

Current            Member of the Geological Society of Australia

Photo credit: Bearcage Productions

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