Science schooling for students with special needs: 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2012

Anita Trenwith

Mrs Anita Trenwith is a born teacher who thinks science should be fun—and that every student deserves a science education. Her current focus is science for special education students, a field in which she has instituted something of a revolution at Salisbury High School, north of Adelaide. It used to be principally a show-and-tell class. Under Mrs Trenwith it is a hands-on experience which teaches both knowledge and life skills.

Among other activities, for instance, her senior class runs science shows within the school and for the local primary schools. One autistic student was quite up-front beforehand. “I won’t do anything in front of anybody,” he said. OK, she told him, no problem. “Your role will be setting up—making sure the chemicals are in the right places and the beakers are out.” By the end of the year, when Channel Nine’s A Current Affair filmed a story on Anita’s work, he had developed so much confidence that he appeared on television with her.

Another student last year began the Agriculture class nervous around horses. She has now completed work experience at Riding for the Disabled.

Anita has been working at Salisbury High School for nearly 15 years. In her time, she has taught Chemistry, Biology, Agriculture and General Science from Year 8 to Year 12, Mathematics to Year 10 and Auslan (Australian sign language) to Year 11.

In 2008, she began developing an International Baccalaureate (IB) course in secondary science for students with special needs. The next year, two of her students were awarded Merits—a perfect score—in their South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) qualification.

For her contributions to teaching science she has been awarded the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

Anita Trenwith’s full citation

“It is important that science is accessible to everybody, particularly those with low literacy, who are often overlooked. Students and the general public need to have some understanding of science in order to make educated decisions about things, and to be informed about what they might see in the news or hear on the radio.”

Anita claims she has never officially left school. “I have an innate desire to teach. Since I was little, I have always taught people around me whatever I learned—a new piece on the piano, horse riding. And I always loved science as a subject, though I couldn’t imagine working in a laboratory.” So, she went straight from Year 12 to university and then straight into the classroom.

“I have a personal drive to make science fun. I want my students to enjoy their lessons, and then go home and talk about what they have done in class.”

In 2006, after nine years of teaching her brand of fun science at the secondary level, she had her first serious encounter with special education—students with some underlying intellectual disability, such as autism, learning difficulties or social issues often leading to low literacy. It came through Auslan.

At the time, Salisbury High was introducing the IB for special education students in its middle levels. One of the stipulations was a second language, but it would have been hard for them study German or Italian. Auslan, however, was both doable and practical. That meant, however, not only paying someone to come in and tutor the language, but a regular teacher also needed to be in the class as part of the duty of care. It was an expensive proposition.

Almost before she knew what she was doing, Anita stuck up her hand. “I can teach sign language. I have a brother-in-law who is deaf.” And once she was in front of the special education class, she began to have “hare-brained ideas”. She immediately saw opportunities to improve what was happening in their science, because they didn’t have science-trained teachers. So she rewrote the science curriculum.

“It has just gone in leaps and bounds since then. I’m like a bull at a gate when I get into something. I put in 110 per cent. I want to see how far I can take an idea.”

The next hare-brained scheme grew out of a student project and Anita’s love of horses. Anita and her husband and seven-year-old son live on a 70-acre property with her horses about half an hour’s drive north of the school. When one of the special education science students wanted to do a project on carbon offsets, she took the whole class tree planting out at the farm. “I saw the students just loved being outdoors.”

So once again, she sat down and wrote a new curriculum for a special education subject—this time in agriculture—where students could learn to drive a tractor, put up a fence, plant a field of grain and work with horses. Now in its second year, the course has been such a success there is a waiting list to get in.

“We start at our place. The students learn to put a fence up, for example. Then they can go and actually use those skills on other properties. And the idea long-term is that we will eventually be able to say to a local farmer, ‘If you supply the materials, our students will put a fence up for you’. That way, the subject actually runs at zero cost to the school. At the same time, it’s creating community links with farmers, and providing a means whereby these students can get seasonal work, driving tractors, helping with cropping and so on.”

Somehow Anita manages to fit her busy schedule with special education students and mainstream teaching into four days a week. And on the fifth day, she involves herself in “other projects”, most of which involve some sort of mentoring of less experienced teachers or helping with science shows and fairs. In the most recent National Science Week, for instance, she managed to stage16 shows at local primary schools. Many of the children recognised her from a similar stint last year.

She runs workshops and presentations at the Stepping Out conferences held each year for early-career teachers by the South Australian Department of Education and Child Development (DECD), and is involved in the South Australia Science Teachers Association. Teachers from other schools often shadow her for a day or two, and she regularly observes lessons, providing hints and sharing resources.

Recently, teachers from the APY Land (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land), the large Aboriginal local government area in South Australia’s extreme north-west came to observe Anita at work. One gets the feeling that this is the start of a long-term collaboration.

Outside of education, family and horses are her life. She has been besotted with horses since she was a child, and has shown horses to State level. Anita has also competed in dressage, eventing and has completed endurance training rides.

On her wish list in the short term are two trips overseas. The first is to participate in Science at Sea, a biannual educational cruise for teachers from Vancouver, Canada, to Juneau, Alaska, and return. The second is to visit her cousin, who is a teacher in Finland.

“They just have the most amazing results in science year after year. I want to visit the schools and find out what they do and how they do it.” In this, Anita has a head start. The daughter of two Finnish immigrants who met and married in Australia, “I’m fluent. I spoke Finnish, before I spoke English” .


2010                           Advanced Skills Teacher Level 2 (AST2), DECD

2004 & 2009           Advanced Skills Teacher Level 1 (AST1), DECD

1996                           Bachelor of Education (Maths and Science), University of South Australia.

Career highlights

2012                           Living Legend (for work in Special Education), City of Salisbury

2012                           Mentor, Limestone Coast Early Career Science Teachers Mentoring Project

2012                           Chemistry Coach, Teach SA Program

2012                           Running student workshops at The University of South Australia Taster Days for the National Disability Coordination Office (NDCO)

2011 & 2012              Regional winner, Inspirational Secondary Teacher of the Year, SA Public Teaching Awards

2011                           Presented at Teach SA Program (reskilling, retraining and recruiting maths and science teachers)

2011                           Presented for Teach SA and Department of Education and Child Development Workforce Development

2011                           Featured as a “Success Story” in the “Teaching is Inspiring” campaign, Council of Education Associations of South Australia, filmed by the ABC

2011                           Developed on-site Senior Agriculture course for Special Education students

2011                           Winner, Science or Maths Teacher, Australian Museum Eureka Prizes

2010                           Three Year 12 “Special Education Science and The Community” students and one mainstream student awarded SA Certificate of Education (SACE) Merit

2010                           Finalist, Science or Maths Teacher, Australian Museum Eureka Prizes

2010                           Nominated for NEiTA (National Excellence in Teaching Award)

2010                           Successful student application for the “Spirit of Science program”, England

2010                           Initiated student-run science sessions “Science at the Lakes”, University of South Australia

2010                           Presented at the Mathematical Association of South Australia Conference “Making Science Fun”

2009                           Awarded School Science Educator of the Year, Science Excellence Awards, South Australia

2009                           Featured on “Making Science Fun” segment, A Current Affair, Channel 9

2009                           Initiated student-run Science Shows at Primary Schools

2009                           Two Year 12 “Special Education Science and The Community” students awarded SACE Merit

2008                           Developed a science curriculum for Special Education with International Baccalaureate focus

1998-present          AST2 Special Education and Science Teacher, Salisbury High School

1997                           Teacher (Science, Mathematics and Health Education), Gawler High School

Image: Anita Trenwith (credit: Prime Minister’s Science Prizes/Bearcage)