From Star Wars Lasers to Science Teaching: 2004 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

Mark ButlerMark Butler

Mark Butler realised he had a passion for teaching while researching high power lasers and lecturing at Macquarie University. But he didn’t want to preach to the converted, such as physics undergraduates. So, he turned his back on the possibility of working at Bell Laboratories on ultraviolet lasers and instead pursued a career in secondary school science teaching.

It was the right choice. After 18 years, his passion for teaching hasn’t waned. And while the physics community may have lost a fine researcher, today many of Mark’s students are studying physics at university, and others have gone on to greater things in research institutes around the world.

The success of his students is costing Mark. Each year he pays $250 to every student who achieves more than 95% in his Year 12 chemistry and physics classes. Mark proposes to use the grant associated with the Prize to continue to reward his high-achieving students!

Today, for his excellence in the practice and leadership of secondary science education, Dr Mark Butler receives the 2004 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

Mark’s parents called him the “mad professor” when, as a young boy, he used to rise before dawn to experiment in his laboratory – the shed in the backyard. But Mark’s passion for science disappeared during adolescence at high school. “The fun had gone out of it. There was no sense of discovery, just too many facts. It was probably due in part to a lacklustre curriculum, and in part just due to hormones,” he says.

Dropping out of school in Year 10, Mark worked around the traps before completing his secondary schooling through TAFE. But the academic world called. He enrolled in law, but quickly realised this was not for him, and transferred to physics. He completed his degree and started a PhD investigating lasers. And he was good. He designed a new kind of laser, and was invited to leading international conferences.

“The highlight was the opportunity to meet Nobel Laureates, and to see Richard Feynmann (Nobel prize winning physicist) give his seminal lecture on quantum computers,” he says.

Then, Mark received overtures about working at Bell Laboratories – the research institute that gave birth to the telephone, transistors, optical fibres, and much more. “It was crunch time,” says Mark. He visited the laboratories. “But New Jersey doesn’t have any decent surf beaches. I had a young family, and education pioneer Bill Eason AM had invited me to be Deputy Principal of the Australian International School.” Mark took the teaching job, and hasn’t looked back.

For the past seven years he has been head teacher of science at Gosford High School, teaching physics, chemistry and science. Mark has a knack for switching students on to science. The results speak for themselves. The number of students studying senior physics has doubled since Mark joined the school. Two of his students were in the top 10 in Year 12 Physics in NSW in 2002, and seven are currently studying advanced science at the University of Sydney. And students queue up to participate in extracurricular science events and contests such as the Rio Tinto Australian Science Olympiads and the University of Newcastle’s Science and Engineering Challenge.

Mark is spreading his ideas by writing textbooks for NSW and Victoria, working on curriculum development, speaking at science teacher conferences and much more.

To quote a former student, now studying medicine:

“Thank you for your passion for life and enthusiasm for teaching us kids about the mysteries of the world. Thanks for the crazy experiments, for not just teaching us to do well in the HSC, but something deeper than that. You’ve taught us the importance of asking questions, searching for answers and the joy of learning.”

Autobiographical Details

* 1954 Born at Eastwood, NSW

* 1979 Bachelor of Arts (Physics, Mathematics & Earth Science), Macquarie University

* 1979 Diploma of Education

* 1980 Technical Officer at the University of NSW

* 1981 Bachelor of Science in Physics (Hons) First Class, Macquarie University

* 1981-1984 Demonstrator in Physics, Macquarie University

* 1985 Awarded PhD, Macquarie University

* 1986-1990 Visiting Research Fellow, Macquarie University

* 1986-1996 Australian International School, Deputy Principal

* 1997-present Gosford High School, Head Teacher of Science, teaching senior physics, chemistry and junior science

Career Highlights

* 2004 Awarded a NSW Premier’s Science Teachers’ Scholarship (to investigate applications of e-learning to science teaching in the UK)

* 2002 Winner of the national BHP/Billiton Secondary School Teacher Award

* 1993 Designed and built the world’s first hybrid HCl copper vapour laser

* 1989 Surfing – State Masters Champion

* 1985 Invited speaker at the Conference of Lasers and Electro-optics

* 1981 Awarded Australian Physics Honours Prize

Contributions to Science and Teaching

Mark has been an active member of the school community coordinating the Student Representative Council and as a member of the Gifted and Talented Student Committee.

As Vice President of the Central Coast Branch of the Science Teachers Association, he keeps in touch with other teachers and is linked into national activities.

Mark has been principal author on two educational books, contributing author on a study guide for HSC physics and assisted with several other physics study guides. In the back of his cupboard he also has a few published papers on lasers, quantum electronics and applied physics.


* Macmillan Education Australia Web Site 2000 Physics Programs, experiments, exams, tests and solutions.

* Australian and New Zealand Physicist 1994 1 paper

* Australian Science Teachers’ Journal 1992-94 2 papers

* Science Education News 1992-93 2 papers

* Optical Society of America Proceedings of Conference of Lasers and Electro-optics (CLEO)

* 1983, 1984 and 1985 (invited paper) 3 papers

* Optics Letters 1987 1 paper (reprinted in Hallmark Papers in UV Laser Development)

* IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics 1985 1 paper

* Applied Physics Letters 1983-84 3 papers


* Macquarie VCE Physics Study Guide, Pan Macmillan (in preparation)

* Macquarie Preliminary Study Guide, Pan Macmillan, 147pp, 2003

* Macquarie HSC Physics Study Guide, Pan Macmillan, 264pp, 2003

* Physics 2, Macmillan Educational Melbourne, 470pp, 2001 (Principal Author)

* Physics 1, Macmillan Educational Melbourne, 340pp, 2000 (Principal Author)

* Success One: a Study Guide for HSC Physics Students, Aaron Butler, Sydney 2000 (Contributing Author)