Fifteen years ago Casula High School was just an average state school in Sydney’s south-western suburbs with just eight students doing science at year 12. But something extraordinary has happened. Two-thirds of Year 11 and 12 students now choose science subjects and they are performing well above the state average.
The transformation is largely due to the work of Dr Ken Silburn, the head of science at Casula.
Ken has transformed the way his students engage with science, through extension programs, interactive and hands-on activities, and a great deal of encouragement.
In the classroom, Ken focuses on what his students are most interested in or fascinated by, and makes it a big part of his science teaching curriculum. A highlight is the use of space science as a core element of the classes.
For his leadership in science teaching, Dr Ken Silburn receives the 2015 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.
Ken Silburn’s citation in full
Ken started out his career working in pathology before joining the army reserves, where his role involved teaching. It was here that he discovered his love of teaching, specifically teaching science, and decided to turn it into his career.
“Science teaching is a buzz,” says Ken. “I don’t think there’s any other job that comes with so many fun activities – it’s always changing and it’s always enjoyable. I feel as though I’m getting paid for something that is my hobby.”
“Ken maintains a classroom environment that is conducive to maximising student learning, focusing on positive results for students,” says Casula High School principal Jennifer French. “He inspires his students to pursue further studies in science.”
Before Ken’s time at Casula High School, south-west of Sydney, there was minimal interest from students in taking science subjects past the point where it was compulsory. Over the past 15 years, Ken has developed and encouraged a love of science in his students, which is reflected in the number of students participating in science subjects, rising from just eight when Ken first started teaching to around 86 today.
In the classroom, Ken brings a strong focus on space science into his lessons to encourage his students to take an interest in learning about science.
“When students come in Year 7, they’re either interested in dinosaurs, or space, or blowing things up,” says Ken. “Dinosaurs are all dead, and we’re not really allowed to blow things up in class, but they can all see themselves as being an astronaut.”
Ken’s classes are interactive with open-ended activities for the students, such as making and testing air and water rockets, creating video clips of their school excursions, designing and making working models, and entering competitions. Ken also offers extension activities for the students to participate in, such as robotics or astronomy nights.
“I’m very proud of the achievement of our school. Getting so many students to choose to study science shows that what we’re doing in the junior school is working,” says Ken.
He heads a highly-qualified team of science teachers at Casula High School that has remained the same for several years. They all love what they do.
Together, they have developed an enrichment program for high school students called iSTEM, (invigorating Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). But it’s not just for their own students – they also tap into teachers and students from other schools. “We go off to the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Sydney Observatory, and some of the universities,” Ken explains. “We just have a great time with science.”
The program brings students out of their schools to a place where they can talk to their peers and to professionals about science.
Casula High School students are also given the opportunity to join Space Camp, based at the US Space Academy. “It’s an excellent program because it gives the students six days of intensive learning about space and what it’s like to be an astronaut,” Ken explains. “But it’s also nice for them to spend time with other like-minded students.”
Ken has found that the students are responding really well to the program. “Some of the students participate in Space Camp because they’re just interested in going overseas,” says Ken. “But when they come back, it’s clear how much they’ve loved it and how much they’ve learnt. And it makes my day when they say it was the best part of their schooling life.”
Ken is one of three Australian science teachers selected to participate in the NASA Spaceward Bound project in the Mojave Desert in the US. He’s also recently been to the Pilbara region in Western Australia, Arkaroola in South Australia and North Island, New Zealand as part of NASA and Mars Society expeditions.
While he has been successful in getting his own students excited about science, Ken recognises the importance of engaging children in science from a younger age.
“Primary school is the time that you can really get the kids interested in learning science, it’s when they start to become inquisitive, and to make up their own investigations,” he says.
To assist the local primary school teachers to develop an interest in science in their students, Ken and his team offer advice on what to include in their science teaching syllabus. He also organises visits to the primary schools with his students to run workshops with the primary students, where they participate in activities together, such as making air rockets and testing them out.
“It’s a big learning curve for the primary students, because they have to research what questions they will ask the bigger kids,” explains Ken. “But it’s also a learning curve for my students, because they have to research the answers to what the primary students want to know.”
Ken has been involved with the Regional Science Teachers Association for over 20 years, and has been their President for the past 12 years, regularly giving workshops and presentations to other science teachers, as well as mentoring and training newly-appointed science teachers.
Ken believes that now is the best time to be teaching science to high school students. “There is a huge emphasis on the need to train students in science, and we need to encourage them to continue to study it after leaving school,” he says.
|2009||Doctor of Education, University of Wollongong|
|1994||Master of Education, University of Western Sydney|
|1992||Certificate of Management – School Administration, University of Western Sydney|
|1987||Graduate Diploma of Education, Sydney College of Advanced Education|
|1986||Bachelor of Science, Macquarie University|
|2014||Community Outreach Award, Australian Institute of Physics|
|2013||Google Qualified Teacher Academy, Google Teacher Academy|
|2012||NSW Engineering and Science Award: Innovation in Science and Mathematics Teaching, NSW Office for Science and Research|
|2012||Climate Change Reality Presenters Program, Australian Climate Change Reality Program|
|2011||Advanced Space Academy for Educators Program, US Space and Rocket Centre|
|2010 – 2013||Highly Commended Certificate, The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science|
|2010||Australian Academy of Science Teaching Award, Australian Academy of Science|
|2010||NSW representative for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Teacher Program, Victorian Space Science Centre and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade|
|2009||Australian Award for Teaching Excellence, Excellence in Teacher Leadership, Teach Australia|
|2009||NSW Department of Education and Microsoft Scholar Award|
|2008||NSW Minister for Education Excellence in the Integration of Information and Communication Technologies Award|
|2008||South West Sydney Director’s Choice Award for Excellence in the Integration of Information and Communication Technologies|
|2008||NSW Information Technology Industry Program Recipient, NSW Department of Education|
|2007||NSW Minister for Education and Training Quality Teaching Award, NSW DET|
|2006||Employee of the Year, Casula High School Mind Matters Initiative|
|2005||NSW Premier’s Scholarship in Science Education, NSW Department of Education|
|2002 – ongoing||President, LAZSTA, Metropolitan South West Science Teachers Association|
Image: Ken Silburn (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear)