A teacher’s laboratory becomes a primary source of inspiration: 2013 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2013

Ric Johnson (credit: Prime Minister's Prizes for Science/ Bearcage)Richard Johnson

Model pterosaurs flying overhead, a new insect in the terrarium by the window, a cool video on non-Newtonian fluids on the SMART board down the front—every time the students of Rostrata Primary School in Perth’s southern suburbs enter Mr Johnson’s science lab, there’s something new. Nothing keeps them away from school on science days.

The laboratory is the realisation of something Ric Johnson recognised in more than 30 years as a primary school teacher—the power of science to engage children in the classroom. The problem, says Ric, is that primary teachers are typically not confident in their own knowledge and ability to teach science. Many simply avoid it.

Eight years ago, Ric was given the opportunity to do something about this. He became involved with the West Australian Department of Education Primary Science Project and was appointed Specialist Science Support Teacher at Rostrata, where he had been teaching for nearly 20 years.

He remodelled an old art room into a laboratory especially to teach science to primary students, and began equipping it with all the latest technology he could get hold of.

“It worked from the very beginning. Some of the boys became so excited they had to go to the toilet halfway through class. And it’s just got better and better.”

The idea has snowballed. Ric now knows of 40 similar labs in WA, “and there are possibly as many as 100”. And his accompanying website, Johnno’s Science (www. johnnosscience.com), is inspiring thousands of teachers around the world with its ideas, resources and projects for teaching and learning primary-school science.

For his innovative and influential approach to the teaching of science, Mr Richard Johnson has been awarded the 2013 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.

Ric Johnson’s full citation

The atmosphere, activity and excitement of Johnno’s Lab is a far cry from what Ric Johnson himself experienced when he attended school. He hated it.

Ric was born in England and came to Western Australia at the age of 11. “In the UK, I was in the Catholic education system, and had a tough time. I remember the bullies, and many of them were the teachers.” Because of this, as a teacher, he sides with the children.

But the one thing he always enjoyed at school was science. From the first time he was exposed to hands-on science activities in high school, he was hooked. “I had some really good science teachers. They were always kind and interesting, and had good stories to tell.”

As far as his own teaching goes, things really took off with his idea of the laboratory. “I try to turn each lesson into a visit to Questacon in Canberra or the Scitech Discovery Centre in Perth by sourcing the best teaching materials from anywhere in the world. I want to get the kids saying, ‘Hey, this looks interesting’ from the moment they walk in.”

He also insists that each class is accompanied by their teacher, who stays, learns and gathers data with the students. “Teachers then spend additional time in their own classroom rounding off the lesson and having the students record their experience.” Not that there is much of a problem with this. There have been times when teachers, who should have been home in bed, have come to school because they didn’t want to miss the science lesson.

Rostrata is located in a highly multicultural area, and Ric says science can help the integration process. “Science is a universal language. Its fascination and immediacy encourages kids to communicate, and gets over language barriers.”

“The laboratory gives those teachers interested in science a space in which to do something creative. And it teaches children critical thinking and problem solving.”

A case in point is a lesson Ric devised on adaptation and natural selection. He made a range of bird beak analogues using such items as pegs, ice-cream sticks and clips. Then he provided a range of foods—seeds, worms made out of string, and other objects. The children used the various different “beaks” to pick up the foods and decided on the best shape for picking up each food item.

Another of his projects involves “heroes of science”. His classes set about acquiring the autographs of famous scientists—Stephen Hawking, for instance—in the course of which they learn about them as people and their work. In some cases, they have also communicated with them.

For instance, Nobel Laureate Robin Warren agreed to come and talk to the children. But on one condition: that the students learn about his work beforehand. Not only did they do so, Year 4 went much further. Jointly they wrote and illustrated a book on Warren and his colleague Barry Marshall, and their discovery of the bacterial cause of stomach ulcers. It is now available online as an eBook.

Ric has always tried to keep up with the latest technology. One of his most recent acquisitions has been a solar barbecue invented by students at Harvard University. It employs the focused heat of the Sun as a non-polluting alternative to using dried cattle or yak dung as a cooking fuel; as more than quarter of the world’s population do. The emissions from burning dung in a confined space can shorten lives. “The idea of cooking with sunlight fits in with the concept of science as a human endeavour.”

Not surprisingly—given the fact that many primary teachers shied away from teaching science and that Ric made his lab not only accessible, but fun—teachers have come from far and wide to learn about his success. At first, Ric was only too happy to devote time to interacting with these teachers personally, but when the trickle became a flood, all he could reasonably do was pack as many resources as he could onto a USB drive and send them on their way.

It was this widespread demand for science learning resources that inspired the website, which he developed with primary school IT guru, Terry Keesing. “I was surprised at how easy it was. It’s now in its third generation and receives attention all around the world.”

Johnno’s Science provides an attractive mix of resources for teaching, ranging from Ric’s own lessons to the best ideas hand-picked from elsewhere. “I have spent years looking at what is available on the Web, and have now whittled my sources down to about half a dozen key websites.” It also presents an idiosyncratic mix of the latest science news, games, videos, pictures and stories—lots to interest adults and children alike.

In the meantime, Rostrata has become a Teacher Development School, which means that Ric now officially works two days a week directly for the WA Education Department, helping other teachers come to grips with the new national science curriculum, for which he has unreserved praise. “It is spot on—easy to work with, flexible and clearly prescribed—a very workable document. New ideas fit in with how the curriculum is written.”

Further reading




1991 Graduate Diploma Applied Science (Outdoor Pursuits), Edith Cowan University
1976 Diploma of Teaching, Claremont Teachers College

Career highlights

2012 Recipient, Innovations grant for TabLITERACY
2010 Initiating Eminent Speakers Night ‘Stars Space and Sharks’ for primary students and families, with Curtin University
2010 Teacher Award, Australian Academy of Science
2010 Science Network Coordinator of 14 West Australian schools with Primary Science Labs
2009 – 2011 Highly Commended, Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
2009 – 2013 Students communicated and sought autographs from eminent scientists all over the world including Professor Stephen Hawkings, CERN Scientists and Ruben Meerman, Professor Barry Marshall and Professor Robin Warren
2008 Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching: Primary, Western Australia
2008 Fremantle-Peel District Award (Teaching Excellence and Innovation)
2007 – 2011 Development and launch of www.johnnosscience.com website
2005 – ongoing Specialist Science Support Teacher, Rostrata Primary School, Perth
1987 – 2004 Class Teacher, Rostrata Primary School
1978 – 1986 Class Teacher, Koorilla Primary School
1978 – 1986 Coordinator, Priority Schools Program, Koorilla Primary School
1976 – 1978 Class Teacher, South Hedland Primary School, Western Australia
Ric Johnson 2

Ric Johnson with students (credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/ Bearcage)

Ric Johnson 3

Ric Johnson with students (credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/ Bearcage)

Header image: Ric Johnson (credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/ Bearcage)