Puppets break the science language barrier: 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2011

Brooke Topelberg

In 2003, Mrs Brooke Topelberg—only three years out from an education degree and just back from two years’ teaching in inner London—was appointed science coordinator of Westminster Primary School. The school is set in a high immigrant, low socio-economic suburban area in northern Perth. Science was a low priority at the school.

Within five years, due largely to Brooke’s drive and leadership, Westminster Primary was adjudged Western Australia’s Science School of the Year. Last year, Brooke herself became the WA Primary Science Educator of the Year.

Now she has gone one step further, winning the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools. And she’s done it with the help of puppets, a garden, good organisation, the support of her colleagues, boundless enthusiasm, and an initial science budget of just $1,500 a year.

Teaching is in Brooke Topelberg’s blood, quite literally. Her mother and two aunts are teachers. She says she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything else. “I always wanted to become a teacher. Just the other day, my mother found a note I had written when I was 10. It read, ‘I will be a teacher by the time I am 21.’ That actually happened.”

While there was no specialisation in her degree, Brooke was always interested in science. “Our job as teachers is to educate children about the world around them—to enable them to make informed decisions. So, I believe science is very important in primary schools. And it needs to relate to everyday life, to be hands on.”

Brooke Topelberg running a hands-on project at Westminster Primary School (credit: Prime Minister’s Science Prizes/Bearcage)

She terms the way she teaches science ‘non-confrontational’ where children don’t feel under pressure to use the right language or come up with the right answer. “One example is that I use hand-held puppets to elicit discussion. The children feel quite comfortable in talking to the puppets. They’re not scared or threatened about giving their views or opinions. They don’t feel there’s an adult around.” For many of the same reasons, she often uses cartoons as well. Both approaches empower children for whom English is a second language.

Another cornerstone of her teaching is a whole-school approach. She integrates science with other learning areas. She has established science-based school projects to do with recycling resources and using water wisely—she has just been granted money to develop a school vegetable garden; and she confers with her colleagues to keep them informed of what she’s doing, the teaching methods and resources she is using, and to draw on their advice.

“Brooke creates and distributes an annual Staff Science Booklet that shares work samples, planning and assessment frameworks, curriculum updates and summaries of student surveys—all of which help to integrate and build confidence among her colleagues,” writes her school principal, Mr Jeff Murphy.

Brooke Topelberg teaching at Westminster Primary School(credit: Prime Minister’s Science Prizes/Bearcage)

“By involving staff in decision-making and providing planning and assessment frameworks that reflect each year’s reporting outcome, Brooke has demonstrated dynamic leadership in making science a strong educational focus. This has been reflected in continuous and measurable improvement in student results over the years and culminated in the WA Science School of the Year award for Westminster Primary in 2008.”

That award, and the confidence it brought the school, made Brooke very proud—the more so, because she could put the prize money into teaching resources which benefited everyone, such as electronic Smart Boards which connect to the web. “Why just explain how caterpillars become butterflies when you have access to videos and images from inside the cocoon?”

Once a week, she opens up the science laboratory for a lunch time science club. “I have some fun science activities for the children to take part in—tea-bag rockets, hovercraft CDs, something hands-on that they can do during the lunch time break.” Not surprisingly, the club is oversubscribed and children have to take turns. “As a result of Mrs Topelberg’s activities, science has now become cool at Westminster,” Jeff Murphy writes.

Brooke Topelberg (credit: Prime Minister’s Science Prizes/Bearcage)

Brooke’s influence, however, is much broader than Westminster Primary. With her Year Six pupils, for instance, she developed a story for a video on science investigation. They then collaborated with media students from nearby Mirrabooka High School to film it, with special effects contributed by undergraduates from Edith Cowan University. That video has now been sold and distributed to more than 200 schools across Australia.

It wasn’t long after her arrival at Westminster that Brooke became frustrated with the lack of avenues for professional development of primary science teachers. As soon as it was mooted, her principal suggested she become involved in the Primary Science Project, initiated by the WA Department of Education. Since that time she has been in constant demand organising and running professional development workshops, and mentoring rookie primary science teachers.

Noticing how much pride children attached to the trophies and prizes awarded for sporting prowess, Brooke has involved the school in many science competitions, such as the Scitech Salvaged Sculpture Competition which it won in 2009. And she has helped set up an annual district science competition for local primary schools.

Apart from spending time with her family and walking the dog, how does Brooke Topelberg switch off from work? A bit of applied chemistry, of course. “I like cooking. I find it very relaxing.”


1999 Bachelor of Education, Edith Cowan University, Perth

Career, awards, fellowships and grants

2010 Science Educator of the Year (Primary), WA Science Awards
2009 First Prize, Scitech Salvaged Sculpture Competition, Westminster Primary School (WPS), Perth
2008-present Coordinator, District Science Challenge
2008-present Coordinator, Lunch Time Science Club, WPS
2008 WA Science School of the Year
2006-present Coordinator, Crunch & Sip School Program, WPS
2006–2007 Producer, ‘Investigating in Science Education’ DVD
2005–2010 Member, Primary Science Outreach Program
2005 Inaugural Member, Department of Education Primary Science Project
2003–2005 Facilitator, Aboriginal Homework Centre, WPS
2003-present Teacher, specialist teacher and science coordinator, WPS
2000–2002 Teacher, Archbishop Sumner Primary School, London
2000 Teacher, Sutherland Dianella Primary School, Perth