The primary foundation of community awareness: 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Michael van der Ploeg

Students in the northwest of Tasmania are entering the wide world of science, thanks to Mr Michael van der Ploeg, assistant principal and specialist science teacher at Table Cape Primary School in Wynyard. His work is having an impact in schools right along the coast.

“…my children love Mr van der Ploeg’s science,” says one parent, “and they are teaching us things that we didn’t know.”

“…my child is taking me into the backyard to explore and do experiments,” says another.

“I was, for many years, a beneficiary of [his] highly informed students at Marist Regional College,” writes Ms Ann Burke, senior secondary science teacher at Hellyer College, Burnie, who is vice president of the Science Teachers Association of Tasmania. “Now at a senior college, I am meeting much older students who have been influenced in their early days by Michael.”

It is this influence that has for years been earning Michael’s students prizes at local, regional and national level in science-based competitions, as well as increasing enrolments in science and medicine at university. Now, Mr Michael van der Ploeg himself is being awarded the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.

Michael van der Ploeg’s full citation

“Science is the most important subject in primary school. Our lives are dictated by science. Everything around us has some connection to science. Science can take you anywhere in the world—to the Great Barrier Reef or Antarctica or even space. And it opens doors to so many careers,” he says.

Born in Devonport, and having never lived outside northwest Tasmania, Michael always wanted to be a primary school teacher. “I only applied to university to get into primary teaching. I don’t know what I would have done, if I hadn’t been accepted.”

It was during teacher training that he first became aware of the possibilities of science. “I saw primary teachers teaching science. And I saw the reaction of the children. It really grabbed my attention. I realised that science can play a huge role in primary teaching by engaging and motivating students in the classroom.”

And after 23 years as a teacher, that recognition hasn’t diminished. Table Cape Primary, for instance, may well be unique in having a whole-of-school robotics program from Prep to Year 6. It is based on the Lego Mindstorm robots developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  And every one of the more than 300 children at Table Cape has access to a robot kit to develop, construct and program robots. The school has even hosted a leg of the Robocup robotic soccer contest.

The robots are just one element of Mr van der Ploeg’s Science Room, a dedicated space where students from all levels go for their specialist science classes. Those are the days of the week no child wants to miss, according to Table Cape principal, Mr Andrew Woodard. The room has proved so popular that it is open for activities at lunchtime and after school. And former students attending the local high school often drop by for the after-school session.

“Some kids learn better when they don’t think they are learning,” Michael says. “I make movies with the kids, animations about scientific concepts. The knowledge they gain is incredible. And you are left with a video teaching tool of kids explaining scientific concepts to kids at a kid level.”

The videos have been successful enough to win a series of national awards in competitions such as the Sleek Geeks Science Prize (Primary School) at the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes  and the National Primary School Award in the Geologi Short Film Competition run by GeoScience Australia. These prizes join a host of others for investigations, posters, environmental awareness, education and robotics. “Entering competitions is another way of engaging students. It gives them opportunities to meet and work with like-minded kids. It also widens their horizons to a world that is more than Wynyard. We’ve had kids go to Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra.”

Closer to home, Michael makes use of people from local science enterprises and industry. He brings them into the classroom—the state manager of the CSIRO’s Invertebrate Collection, for instance; people working in the local industries growing plants for insecticides and pharmaceuticals; representatives of the local Landcare and Coastcare groups.

“Rather than have science compete for time with other curricular areas,” Ann Burke writes, “Michael uses science as a medium through which to teach widely, including: numeracy, literacy, information technology and the life skills of planning, completing, presenting and speaking to selected topics.”

In fact, he measures his success by such things. “I look for hidden outcomes, such as how they present what they have done to the rest of the class when they finish a project. I am most satisfied when kids ask questions.”

Michael van der Ploeg also runs workshops for other teachers. “These are practical, hands-on workshops, seeking to break down barriers, so science in not a mystery. You don’t have to be an amazing scientist, I tell them. This is what’s possible. Just go to the supermarket and buy these ingredients. This is how it works, and this is why it works.”

And when the day’s over, he doesn’t entirely get away from his job at home. He and his wife, Shelley, also a teacher, have a family of three primary school kids. “It’s all very busy, all very hectic.”

One thing the children have interested him in is lifesaving. “I’ve found I really enjoy swimming. I’m not very good, but last summer I got my Bronze Medallion.”


1998                           Certificate of Principal Accreditation, Department of Education, Tasmania

1990                           Tasmanian Teacher Certificate, Department of Education, Tasmania

1989                           Bachelor of Education, Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, Launceston

Career highlights

2012                           Winner, Teachers Award, BHPBilliton Science & Engineering Awards

2012                           Specialist Primary Classroom Science Teacher (.5), Table Cape Primary School

2012                           Workshop facilitator: Promoting Earth and Space Science and Chemistry from Foundation to Grade 4 linking to the Tasmanian and Australian Curriculum, Science Teachers Association of Tasmania (STAT)

2012                           Future Sparks sustainable energy video competition, Green Cross Australia – State and National Winner

2011 & 2012           Workshop facilitator: Student Led Investigations in the Primary Classroom, STAT Conference

2010 & 2011           Winner (Primary Division), Geologi Short Film Competition, Geoscience Australia (Student Prize)

2010 – 2012             Highly Commended, Sleek Geeks Science Prize (Primary School), Australian Museum Eureka Prizes (Student Prize)

2008                           Winner, Sleek Geeks Science Prize (Primary School), Australian Museum Eureka Prizes (Student Prize)

2008-2012               Primary Encouragement Awards, BHPBilliton Science & Engineering Awards (except 2011) (Student Prize)

2007                           Highly Commended (Junior Division), Royal Australian Chemistry Institute National Crystal Growing Competition (Student Prize)

2006-2010               Winner, Cradle Coast NRM Coastcare Poster Competition (Student Prize)

2006-present          Assistant Principal and Teacher, Table Cape Primary School

2005                           District Winner, Learning Together Awards for Educational Excellence (Student Prize)

2003-2005               Teaching Principal, Ridgley Primary School

2003                           District Winner (for beginning Teacher Support Program), Learning Together Awards for Educational Excellence

2002                           Advance Skills Teacher: Senior Teacher Curriculum/Behavioural Development and Support, Arthur Support Service

2000                           Finalist, National Landcare Education Awards

1998                           Commended for Local Action, Keep Australia Beautiful Australian Schools Environmental Awards

1997-2001               Teaching Principal, Stanley Primary School

1994-1996               Teacher, Inglis Primary School

1991-1993               Teacher, East Ulverstone Primary School

1990                           Teacher, East Devonport Primary School

Image: Michael van der Ploeg (credit: Prime Minister’s Science Prizes/Bearcage)