Category Archives: science education

Evolving approaches to STEM pedagogies in Australian Primary Schools: A review of current research

Post by Dr Maree Skillen

It has been identified that Australia needs a STEM capable workforce for the future, and that “the foundations of STEM competence are laid in early childhood” (Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016, p.11). These same authors highlight the importance and need for “high quality primary school science and mathematics education” (2016, p.7), and a need to expand the skill-base of students to embrace technology and engineering. To support STEM in Australian schools, the Government has committed to improving the skills of young Australians to ensure they can live and work in a globalised world. Innovative programs have been funded with a focus on early learning and school STEM initiatives (Australian Government Department of Education, 2019). These initiatives have been extended to include support for a range of education projects to improve STEM outcomes for school-aged students. Teachers are embracing initiatives to partner with STEM professionals and for now the results indicate teachers are focused on enhancing their teaching practices to deliver engaging STEM education experiences in Australian schools.

Why the continued focus on STEM?

Declining enrolments across STEM subjects has attracted much attention within Australia in recent times. Wood (2017) confers with this decline by referring to the National Scientific Statement which found participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian schools appear to be at the lowest level in 20-years. It is widely recognised that students’ early interest in science begins at primary school; and, the teaching of related subjects at this level is important for fostering skills and interest within students, ensuring they continue to engage with STEM subjects during their transition to senior secondary and tertiary education.

Despite the critical importance of early STEM instruction, findings from Australian research indicate that it has not previously been a strong focus in primary schools; even though the foundation of building STEM competence has been recognised as being best placed in early childhood situations (Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016; Fitzgerald, Dawson & Hackling, 2013). Reasons for this include a lack of indicative curriculum time allocated to deliver subjects in Australian schools. Prinsley and Johnston (2015, p.7) identify that “Education authorities, industry, universities and others are developing their own approaches and resources for STEM education, in a vast array of disconnected, duplicating and competing programmes”. If managed strategically, STEM can be incorporated more deliberately into existing curriculum and timetabled to provide enriched learning opportunities for all Australian primary school students.

Primary Teachers and STEM Education

Many primary teachers have identified and willingly acknowledged their lack of expertise and confidence to teach STEM content well. Prinsley and Johnston (2015) state that “currently only a minority of Australia’s primary school teachers have an educational background in a STEM discipline”. Added to the apparent lack of STEM qualifications of primary teachers, some reports identify that pre-service and trained teachers did not study science or mathematics to Year 12, or an equivalent level. This was reaffirmed by Abraham, Smith & Skillen (2019) after surveying a group of Western Sydney University (WSU) pre-service teachers to better understand and identify the types of science learners completing the mandatory Primary Science and Technology unit, as part of their Master of Teaching (Primary) studies. A proposed remedy (Rosicka, 2016; Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016) to this situation is to employ specialist teachers in each school or within a cluster of schools to provide much needed curriculum support in these areas. Other suggestions call for improvements in professional development programs to allow primary teachers greater access to digital or online STEM related resources (Tytler, Symington, Malcolm & Kirkwood, 2009).  There has also been some research into developing STEM skills of pre-service teachers through collaborations with schools, university, and industry professionals.

 Gaps and Opportunities

A number of gaps in current research about STEM pedagogies utilised in Australian primary schools have been identified. Surprisingly, few peer reviewed studies about STEM education were uncovered in this literature review. Furthermore, very few studies have been undertaken in the government education sector despite the high profile of STEM in the media.  It was noted that many studies report on pre-service teacher education programs as a positive step forward; however, follow-up research outlining the success of these programs once a pre-service teacher becomes an in-service teacher are not identified. Research from the period identified for this literature search (ie. from 2008 to 2018), generally focused on the application of a specific model or unit of work in a specific situation. Conversely, research into what is happening in schools has not been collated and peer reviewed. Many articles reported on the lack of competency and confidence of primary school teachers for the STEM disciplines. Steps to increase this confidence and competence have not been formally quantified on an Australia-wide basis.

Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre (2016, p.29) refer to Australia as being “at an inflexion point” in regard to STEM education; and, whilst Australian primary schools and teachers may face challenges there are many exciting opportunities to create a “buzz” about STEM teaching and learning. Some current Australian Government (2019) STEM initiatives to support teaching and learning for students, teachers and schools include: Digital Technologies Hub; reSolve: Mathematics by Inquiry; Primary Connections; Science by Doing; Curious Minds; digIT; STEM Professionals in Schools; and, Pathways in Technology (P-TECH), a pilot program involving the establishment of long-term partnerships between industry, schools and tertiary education providers. These initiatives align with goals outlined in the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026 (Education Council, 2015); and, promote collaboration between educators and industry to ensure students and teachers “keep up with the rapid pace of change in STEM disciplines” (ISA, 2017, p.33). These initiatives and programs also focus towards preparing young people for the jobs of the future.

About the Author

Dr Maree A. Skillen coordinates and lectures in Primary Mathematics education at Western Sydney University.

References

Abraham, J., Smith, P. & Skillen, M. (2019). Types of science learners: What kind are you? Retrieved from https://educationunlimitedwsu.com/2019/08/

Australian Government Department of Education (DoE). (2019). Support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Retrieved from https://www.education.gov.au/support-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics

Caplan, S., Baxendale, H. & Le Feuvre, P. (2016). Making STEM a primary priority. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Education Council. (2015). National STEM School Education Strategy: A comprehensive plan for science technology, engineering and mathematics education in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.educationcouncil.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/National%20STEM%20School%20Education%20Strategy.pdf

Fitzgerald, A., Dawson, V., & Hackling, M. (2013). Examining the beliefs and practices of four effective Australian primary science teachers. Research in Science Education, 43, 981–1003. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9297-y

Innovation and Science Australia (ISA). (2017). Australia 2030: prosperity through innovation. Canberra: Australian Government. Retrieved from https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/g/files/net3906/f/May%202018/document/pdf/australia-2030-prosperity-through-innovation-full-report.pdf

Prinsley, R. & Johnston, E. (2015). Position Paper: Transforming STEM teaching in Australian Primary Schools. Australian Government Office of the Chief Scientist. Retrieved from https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/Transforming-STEM-teaching_FINAL.pdf

Rosicka, C. (2016). From concept to classroom: Translating STEM education research into practice. Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research. Retrieved from www.acer.edu.au

Tytler, R., Symington, D., Malcolm, C. & Kirkwood, V. (2009). Assuming responsibility: Teachers taking charge of their professional development. Teaching Science 55(2) 9 – 13.

Wood, P. (2017). STEM enrolments hit 20-year low, but scientists have an idea to stop the slide. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-30/science-maths-enrolments-hit-20y-low-but-scientists-have-a-plan/8395798

 

Types of science learners: What kind are you?

Post By Jessy Abraham, Philip Smith and Maree Skillen

To engage children with science at primary level, we need teachers who are confident and enthusiastic about teaching science. However, research shows that in general, Australian primary school teachers are not comfortable with teaching science. They often lack content knowledge and their low sense of teaching self-efficacy is well documented in international primary science education literature science (e.g. Fitzgerald, Dawson & Hackling, 2013).  The decline in confidence and interest in science is also evident when students enter primary pre-service teacher education courses.  Pre-service teachers (PSTs) acknowledge a lack of understanding of content essential to teach primary science effectively (Stephenson, 2018).

Students’ early interest in science begins at primary schools and therefore, poor science teaching at this level can lead them to losing interest in science and eventual discontinuation from the subject during their transition to senior secondary and tertiary studies. This decline in science enrolment has attracted much attention in Australia in recent times.

Several factors influence a student’s science learning and teaching self-efficacy. Personal beliefs are one of them. Bleicher (2009) asserts that the science learner ‘typology’ of a PST would be shaped from their earlier experiences with science, and this can influence their teaching self-efficacy. His research classified PSTs into four types of science learners, based on disclosure of their prior science learning experiences. These types were: fearful of science; disinterested in learning science; successful in science, and enthusiastic about science. His study concluded that each ‘type’ has a distinct effect on science teaching self-efficacy and confidence to learn and teach science.  For example, fearful science learners perceived themselves as substantially less confident to learn science than all other types. Interestingly, disinterested science learners did not demonstrate a lack of confidence to learn science.  As an extension to this study, Norris, Morris and Lummis (2018) identified a new type of science learner (not clearly identifiable), located in the middle of the other four categories.

At Western Sydney University (WSU) in the Primary Science & Technology program, we wanted to identify the type of science learners our PSTs are. The purpose of this being to optimise their science learning during the methods unit. Our expectation was that WSU PSTs would display a range of dispositions towards science as primary teachers are generalists, not specialists like their secondary counterparts.  The guidelines of Bleicher’s study (2009) were followed in classifying the types.  Pre-service teachers were informed that the types are not mutually exclusive categories and, although there might be overlap between the descriptions of categories, they were to identify the category that best describes them.

Our survey attracted 91 PSTs (82 females and 9 males) and revealed interesting results. The majority of the PSTs discontinued formal study of science either at Year 12 (39%) or at Year 10 (37%). Only 19% of the students who responded had studied some science subjects to a Degree level while 6% discontinued at Year 11.

Out of the 91 respondents, 13% identified themselves as disinterested in learning science (e.g. dislike or disinterest for science during secondary education/felt bored/not engaged during class/not interested in teaching the subject), while 26% identified themselves as fearful of science (e.g. afraid or have apprehension towards science/the subject content felt foreign and did not make sense/ ‘scared’ about teaching due to a lack of conceptual understanding). It was pleasing to note that 41% are enthusiastic science learners (e.g. highly interested in science/enjoyed or enjoy science classes/attended extra-curricular science type of activities or hobbies/not necessarily achieving highest grades in classes but looking forward to teaching science). Only 6% reported that they are the successful in science type (e.g. high achievers in the area of science/ have science hobby or hobbies/specific interest outside of school science/feel confident to learn and understand science concepts/ confident in teaching science). Interestingly, 14% of students were categorised into not clearly identifiable type (e.g. like some parts of science/ like one branch of science but not some other branches/does not like school science but like science fiction or movies/ will avoid teaching science if possible).

Further, PSTs were asked about the branch of science that they prefer with more than one option being possible to select. Biology was the most popular option (50%), followed by Earth Sciences/Geology (40%), Chemistry (20%), Physics (12%), and Astrophysics (10%). It was notable that 26% of PSTs did not like any branch of science. While a fearful science learner admitted “science is boring and I just can’t retain the information”, not clearly identifiable type felt “science is exciting but challenging at the same time”. Interestingly, enthusiastic science learners disclosed that they “love science, but nervous about teaching the subject”. A successful in science learner described that they “deeply madly fall in love with science”. In general, PSTs felt they lack confidence in certain areas such as Chemistry and Physics than Biology and Geology. Yet, they are all expected to teach a key learning area incorporating all these branches, namely Primary Science, once they qualified as a teacher.

Findings of our survey indicate that a science classroom can include various types of learners. For us this means that our PSTs need more time and learning experiences to reduce their nervousness about science learning and teaching. Furthermore, the areas in which they are less confident about teaching need to be more strongly scaffolded. Thus a knowledge of science learner types can transform the design of a methods unit and assist teacher education providers in building confidence and capacity of future science teachers. Likewise, while designing programs for in-service teachers’ professional development, the typology of science learners needs to be considered.

A knowledge of learner types in school science and integrated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms can assist school teachers as well. Science programs can include learning experiences that inspire and engage various types of science learners. Engaged and inspired learners will be actively involved in higher-level discussions, critical thinking and problem solving (Tyler & Pain, The Conversation, March 15, 2017).  Focusing on building the various types of learners’ identity in relation to ‘Working Scientifically’ (Science and Technology K–6 Syllabus, 2017) can boost the longer-term success of STEM education which is at the core of the government’s science agenda.

About the authors

Jessy Abraham coordinates and lectures in Primary Science and Technology at Western Sydney University.

Philip Smith is a casual academic specialising in science education at Western Sydney University.

Maree Skillen coordinates and lectures in Primary Mathematics education at Western Sydney University.

 

References

Bleicher, R. (2009). Variable relationships among different science learners in elementary science methods courses. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 7(2), 293–313. doi:10.1007/s10763-007-9121-8

Fitzgerald, A., Dawson, V., & Hackling, M. (2013). Examining the beliefs and practices of foureffective Australian primary science teachers. Research in Science Education, 43, 981–1003. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9297-y

Hackling, M., Peers, S. & Prain, V. (2007). Primary Connections: Reforming science teaching in Australian primary schools. Teaching Science, 53(3), 12-16.

Stephenson, J. (2018). A Systematic Review of the Research on the Knowledge and Skills of Australian Preservice Teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 43(4). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2018v43n4.7

Norris, C. M., Morris, J. E., & Lummis, G. W. (2018). Preservice teachers’ self-efficacy to teach primary science based on ‘science learner’ typology. International Journal of Science Education, 40(18), 2292-2308.

Tytler,R  & Pain, V.  (2015). Science curriculum needs to do more to engage primary school students. The Conversation, March 15, 2015. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/science-curriculum-needs-to-do-more-to-engage-primary-school-students-74523

Science and Technology K–6 Syllabus.  (2017). NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). Retrieved from https://educationstandards.nsw.edu.au/wps/portal/nesa/k-10/learning-areas/science/science-and-technology-k-6-new-syllabus

 

 

 

Science Focused Makerspaces: Transforming Learning in Teacher Education

By Jessy Abraham and Philip Smith

“Now I feel like a man!” exclaimed a female pre-service teacher. For the first time in her life she had used an electric drill, when she was constructing an artefact for an assessment task in the Primary Science & Technology unit (PS&T). Although unwittingly entrenching the prevailing stereotypical gendered expectations about the use of physical technology tools, this comment flags one of the major challenges that these teachers – especially female teachers- face: namely, the lack of technological self-efficacy. The lack of teacher confidence in using physical technology tools and integrating the use of such tools in classroom teaching are recurring themes in science teacher education literature and may have future negative impact on students in classrooms.

Confronting and overcoming such fears cannot be dismissed as a ‘female problem’. However, gender has been shown to be one of the determining factors of technological self-efficacy. Although the overall findings regarding gender differences in technological self-efficacy are inconclusive, males tend to score higher than females on specific scales. This could be related to the gendered norms and expectations created by society which in turn enhance attitudes and eventually expertise in using such tools.

The science teaching team conducted an informal survey in 2017 among 106 pre serve teachers (90 females and 16 males) regarding their perceived expertise and confidence in using physical technological tools like power drills or soldering irons. The results showed that while females displayed a low rating of 2.9 on average; the males’ rating was 3.5 (scale mean 3). While 50 percent of the females were extremely negative or negative about using such physical technology tools in their classrooms, only 19% males were negative. Only 33% females reported that they were either positive or extremely positive in using physical technology tools, in comparison to 56% of the male cohort.

Bandura (1977) identifies four general sources of self-efficacy: performance accomplishments, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. Studies suggest that there are differences in the way these sources influence both genders. For example, the most influential source of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) self-efficacy for men has been identified as the mastery experience, while for women vicarious experiences and social persuasion were the prominent influences (e.g., Zeldin & Pajares, 2000). This prompted the WSU science team to establish Makerspaces focusing on improving students’ self-efficacy through vicarious experiences and social persuasion.

Makerspaces are becoming more common in Australian universities (Wong & Partridge, 2016). They are defined as a creative physical space where students can explore, play, design, invent and build new projects and technologies (Blackley et al., 2017). In such an informal space, students have the opportunity to become involved with collaborative hands-on projects that promote experiential learning. Maker movements can also develop a mentality among participants leading them to realise that they could be a creator rather than just a consumer. By easily incorporating a variety of STEM topics, Makerspaces are a great means to engage students in STEM. For example, E-textiles and soft circuitry, (circuits that are sewn using conductive thread or fabric), have shown to be an engaging way to teach electronics and programming (Thomas, 2012).

The key purpose of PS&T unit’s Makerspaces are to create space for pre-service teachers to learn, play, make and explore in the teaching areas of science and technology in a flexible and supportive setting. The preferred way of learning is underpinned by a social constructivist perspective, where new knowledge was developed through collaboration, social interactions, and the use of shared classroom communication (Martinez & Stager, 2013). Our Makerspaces focus on Exploratory Fabrication Technologies (EFT): technologies centred on fabrication (activities oriented towards invention, construction and design) and those centred on exploration (activities oriented towards expression, tinkering, learning, and discovery) (Blikstein, Kabayadondo, Martin, & Fields, 2017). The EFT tools include hot glue guns, heat guns, soldering irons, wire solders, and power tools such as drills, sanders and saws.

Science teaching staff are on hand in our Makerspaces to facilitate learning, making and exploring. They assist participants with specific skills: training, investigation of materials and resources, and use of tools. Staff help participants to develop a product for use in their primary classrooms. These include solar ovens, slime, battery-operated cars, wax wraps, kites, magnetic circuits, crystal snowflakes and a cloth number-counting resource. Participants also investigate classroom resources such as science kits, a seed germination observation kit, and other botanical displays; and use common tools such as power drills, soldering irons, cutters and saws and 3D printers. For some, this is their first chance to learn how to use a soldering iron or a drill. Students also get involved in skill development of their peers. For example, those who had already learnt how to use the soldering iron teach other students how to solder. Participants are given resources related to the development of Makerspaces within educational settings and a small collection useful websites.

Students appreciate the opportunity to experience hands-on activities they can use in their own teaching. They acknowledge the importance of the trial and error approach, importance of peer-to-peer discussions and the relaxed environment while they acquire new skills.   A number of students said the event built their confidence to use tools, to experiment, and to do science. Some appreciate seeing what teaching and learning resources are available for teaching science and technology and some learn how to organise MS at their school.

The overwhelming student support for Makerspaces has implications for schools. ‘Making’ can happen in a variety of places other than STEM-related concepts and technology-based activities. Makerspaces can promote a ‘community of practitioners’ and transform the way students can collaborate and learn.

About the authors:

Jessy Abraham received her PhD in Education from the University of Western Sydney in 2013. She lectures in Primary Science and Technology.  Before joining UWS she worked as a science teacher in NSW schools.  Her research interests are in the area of student motivation, engagement and retention in sciences. Her research employs sophisticated quantitative analyses. Currently her research is focused on pre-service science teachers and practices that enhance their self-efficacy in teaching science in primary school settings.

Philip Smith is a casual academic specialising in science education at Western Sydney University.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215

Blikstein, P., Kabayadondo, Z., Martin, A. and Fields, D. (2017), An Assessment Instrument of Technological Literacies in Makerspaces and FabLabs. J. Eng. Educ., 106: 149–175. doi:10.1002/jee.20156

Blackley, S., Sheffield, R., Maynard, N., Koul, R., & Walker, R. (2017). Makerspace and Reflective Practice: Advancing Pre-service Teachers in STEM Education. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2017v42n3.2

Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing modern knowledge press.

Thomas, A. ( 2012) Engaging Students in the STEM Classroom Through “Making” https://www.edutopia.org/blog/stem-engagement-maker-movement-annmarie-thomas, Retrieved on 13 Feb,2018.

Wong, A., & Partridge, H. (2016) Making as Learning: Makerspaces in Universities, Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 47:3, 143-159, DOI: 10.1080/00048623.2016.1228163

Zeldin, A.L., & Pajares, F. (2000). Against the odds: Self-efficacy beliefs of women in mathematical, scientific, and technological careers. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 215-246.