Fifteen years ago Rebecca Johnson, from Windaroo State School, initiated a new method for teaching science more effectively in primary schools without costing the government anything extra.
“No-one ever questions the need to have specialist teachers for subjects such as music, physical education and languages other than English, in primary schools,” says Rebecca.
“Particular skill sets and qualities are required to teach these subjects effectively, and I believe the same applies to teaching science.”
With a fully-resourced science room Rebecca, with her teaching partner, teaches science to every student at Windaroo State School. Because of this designated space and the importance that has been assigned to this subject area, the children are able to experience a depth of science learning usually reserved for high school. And it’s all effectively done during the classroom teachers’ non-contact time, at no extra cost.
Almost a hectare of the school grounds have been turned into teaching gardens which, under Rebecca’s guidance, the students created and built. Here they work with real-life examples of what they are learning about in the classroom and they sell the harvest to staff.
This teaching model provides continuity and consistency across the vital key learning areas of science. By the time the students enter high school they have had consistent, engaging, positive introductions to all science strands, making them far more likely to continue on with these subjects at high school and beyond.
This model has now been widely adopted by other Queensland primary schools, and Rebecca now assists teachers to set up their own specialist science programmes. For her contributions to science teaching and fostering a love of science in her students, Mrs Rebecca Johnson has been awarded the 2015 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.
Rebecca Johnson’s citation in full
For as long as she can remember, Rebecca has been interested in science and nature. For her 12th birthday she asked her family for a chemistry set, and set up a laboratory in her parent’s garage where she would conduct all sorts of experiments. Her love of animals was further encouraged when a retired vet moved in next door.
“We would walk around together to look at animals on our properties, and he would ask me what I thought we should do when we came across a sick animal. He treated me as a fellow scientist,” says Rebecca.
“He was an inspiration for me as someone who loved his job and was always learning.”
It was these early experiences that inspired her to create her children’s book series Juliet – Nearly a Vet in 2014. It tells the story of a 10-year-old who, having seen what her mother does whilst working as a vet, thinks she can be one too. In 2014, her fourth book in this series, Bush Baby Rescue, won the Wilderness Society Award for Children’s Literature, and her series of books The Insect Series also won the Whitley Award for Best Educational Scientific Series.
Rebecca didn’t think her knowledge and skills in maths were strong enough to pursue a career in veterinary science, so she studied to be a teacher and hasn’t looked back.
“I don’t think I could love a job more than I love teaching science,” says Rebecca.
“I get the best of both worlds, and no two days are ever the same.”
Rebecca’s classes are all about giving her students the confidence to have a go. The classes are hands-on, based in a specialised science room complete with pet blue-tongued lizards, guinea pigs, fish, crayfish and stick insects; USB microscopes; and other specimens such as skulls, bones, shells and rocks. Everything in the science room is touchable.
“We often underestimate how much children know and understand,” says Rebecca. “I encourage my students to use their prior knowledge, and to show me just how much they know.”
In her model of teaching science, Rebecca and her teaching partner teach every student in the school for an hour of science per week. For the older students she also prepares an extra hour of science, which they do back in the classroom with their teacher. This doesn’t sound much, but the difference it makes is huge. Her students regularly walk away with most of the prizes at local science competitions.
Fifteen years in the making, the model was initially tough to get off the ground.
“It went against the conventional model that all classroom teachers should be teaching their own science lessons,” explains Rebecca.
She credits a large part of her success to her school principals at Windaroo, who have been prepared to support her vision. Other schools have since heard of the success of Rebecca’s program, and are now implementing it in their own schools.
The students at Windaroo take Rebecca’s science classes in a specialised science room full of specimens and samples, many of which have been donated by parents and the local community. The students are encouraged to visit the science room during their own time, before school and during lunchtime, and many do on a regular basis.
Rebecca also ensures that the children head off to high school with some understanding of what different branches of science, such as chemistry, physics and biology, are all about.
“This gives my students the confidence to not be afraid of those more technical and challenging sciences, and encourages them to take them on at a higher level,” she says.
Another key part of Rebecca’s teaching curriculum involves a two-acre teaching garden that the students built themselves.
“Parts of the school were a big dustbowl,” explains Rebecca. “We received some funding which covered materials, and the students all pitched in to build the garden themselves, bucket by bucket, as a team. And because they created it, they really respect it.”
The students are responsible for maintaining and taking care of the garden, from raking, mulching and tidying, to planting and harvesting. Because everything in the garden is organic, the students also research organic methods of removing pests when they become a problem.
Rebecca and the students put a lot of thought into designing the garden to ensure it would be a useful teaching resource. There are fish and frog ponds, eight working vegetable beds, and they’ve planted a range of endangered, indigenous, and native plants. The garden ties in heavily with the Australian Curriculum, allowing the students to see real life examples of what they’re learning about.
“The garden makes our science classes very hands on,” explains Rebecca. “Instead of just learning about plants and insects in the classroom, the students can go out to the garden and pick a flower, look at it under the USB microscope, see the nectar, and understand how that links in with the pollinating insect. There’s just so much science in the garden.”
Each week the students turn the teaching garden into a market, harvesting the vegetables that they’ve grown and agreeing on a price to sell them for. At lunchtime, they sell the vegetables to their very willing teachers. The money made is then reinvested back into the garden to buy more seeds and other materials, and the students are part of the decision process when choosing which vegetables and plants to grow.
Rebecca’s science teaching model, including the garden, has made a noticeable difference to the attitude of the children to nature and to their interest in learning science. “You can see the enthusiasm in the children’s faces,” she says. “They love coming to science class, nobody wants to leave, and they often go home and tell their parents about all of the wonderful things they’ve learnt. Some of them even talk their parents into stopping for ingredients on the way home for dinner table demonstrations!”
Rebecca plans to keep teaching science her way until she retires, and hopes to see her model become implemented nationally.
“It is so important to be on the ground working with students who are hopefully going to be the scientists of the future. But if we are serious about increasing the number of Australian scientists, and the number of children taking science in high school, we need to focus on what’s happening in primary schools,” she says.
“Teachers are so busy, and science is such a full-on subject – if science was taken off their plates and science specialists were able to support them fully, you would certainly find that science would be taught better, kids would enjoy it more, and the result would ultimately be more, and better, Australian scientists. We need to keep inspiring children to take science in high school, and they will hopefully become the scientists that Australia so desperately needs.”
|Bachelor of Education, Griffith University
|Diploma of Teaching, Mt Gravatt College of Advanced Education
|Wilderness Society Award for Children’s Literature (Bush Baby Rescue, book four in series Juliet – Nearly a Vet, published by Penguin)
|Whitley Award for Best Educational Scientific Series (The Insect Series, published by Pascal Press)
|Winner, State Future Sparks Competition, Windaroo State School
|Winner, Australian Recycled Cartonboard National Schools Competition, Windaroo State School
|Primary Science Facilitator, Beenleigh Cluster
|Peter Doherty Award for Excellence in Whole School Science Program, Windaroo State School
|Second place, Australian Recycled Cartonboard National Schools Competition, Windaroo State School
|Peter Doherty Award for Excellence in Science Teaching
|Featured speaker, Halogen Foundation National Leaders Day – Brisbane Convention Centre
|Clunies Ross Awards Dinner as guest of the Chair of Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
|2011 & 2012
|Presenter, Griffith University ‘Cutting Edge Science’
|2011, 2012 & 2013
|Logan Envirogrant, Windaroo State School
|Three day workshop writing Exemplar Programs – invited by Queensland Studies Authority
|Westpac Landcare Grant, Windaroo State School
Image: Rebecca Johnson (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear)