Summer School for Science Teachers: the joy of the why

A live cross to CERN with Dr Rolf Landua, who is standing next to the Large Hadron Collider.

by Sarah Quin, Science Teacher

In the space of one week I designed and tested a prosthetic limb using only basic materials, partook in a live cross to CERN with a scientist standing next to the Large Hadron Collider, discovered the wonders of quantum mechanics, held a piece of 4.4 billion year old rock, and was challenged to justify why we are not just a part of a computer simulation, by an astrophysicist who has discovered dark radiation.

I was fortunate enough to spend a week attending the National Science Teachers’ Summer School (NSTSS**) in January this year, based at the Australian National University. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear from leading researchers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, and engage in discussions on how to teach and inspire students in these areas.

According to the research of Dr Tracey-Ann Palmer, nationally, there has been a significant drop in the number of students taking a Science subject after Year 10 (with the exception of Psychology). As an all-girls school however, Strathcona has higher than national averages of students studying a VCE Science subject, and many of our students go on to study a range of Sciences at University. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report in 2015 found that “75% of the fast growing occupations require STEM skills” and “70% of Australian employers identify STEM employees as being the most innovative”. At Strathcona, we emphasise to students that Science subjects don’t have to lead to obvious careers as doctors, biologists, chemists or physicists. Instead, science has inherent value in almost any profession as a result of the skills it cultivates, including critical thinking and scientific literacy.

Studying science can also be rewarding, challenging, and fun. At NSTSS, we heard from many inspiring professionals in a range of STEM areas; all of whom loved their jobs. When asked why they persevered in Science careers despite the challenge of not finding answers or discovering concrete solutions that had direct practical applications, the scientists looked flummoxed. “Because it’s fun,” they replied. An astrophysicist at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex explained that whilst their research might lead to innovations initially used by NASA and then for the general population, such as enriched baby food, portable cordless vacuums or infra-red ear thermometers, that’s often not the basis for the research. Scientists just want to know why.

This is what STEM at Strathcona is all about: sparking curiosity, nurturing a love of learning, inspiring students by showing them what is possible, and motivating them to achieve in whatever field they choose in the future.

** The NSTSS is offered through the National Youth Science Forum, (NYSF). The NSTSS was also supported in 2017 by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science amongst other organisations. NYSF also offer a 12 day residential program for students entering Year 12. After completion of the program there are opportunities to attend one of several international conferences.