Rita Urry

Citizen scientists

Teacher Rita Urry spent 2011 as a Royal Society Primary Science Teacher Fellow. For two terms she worked with a scientist from the Wellington Regional Council monitoring the environment. Back…

Teacher Rita Urry spent 2011 as a Royal Society Primary Science Teacher Fellow. For two terms she worked with a scientist from the Wellington Regional Council monitoring the environment. Back at school, her students have looked at trees around the school” what’s growing (natives or not) and how to encourage more birds. “With the stream, we’re looking at how to improve water quality” is it by planting plants, removing weeds?” says Urry. “What we’re doing is far more practical than the old vinegar-and-soda experiments which just fizz away. Here, we’re solving real problems.”

Doing better

In fact, Rita is putting into practice what the experts are currently saying” kids need context as well as content when it comes to learning about science. The experts, currently, are having a field day.

Sir Peter Gluckman’s report on science education released in 2011 seems to have got the ball rolling, and the Ministry of Education has commissioned reports on engaging the science community in schools” which is ironic given that the ministry used to employ teams of highly effective science advisors. A 2012 report from ERO urged teachers to do better with science.

And it seems that every scientist and their dog is ready to step into this perceived vacuum. Institutes, universities, research bodies, private providers” are all offering or developing education programmes aimed at the compulsory education sector.

Teachers lack confidence

Rita Urry says this is good news as many teachers simply lack the confidence to teach science effectively and more engagement with scientists does help. “The new teachers work really hard” with science tables and the like but you need to know how science works. “Many teachers in primary have a literacy background, and many of the new teachers have only done a one-year online training course where they had perhaps four or five hours of instruction on how to teach science.” However, Urry believes this lack of confidence can be overcome. Teachers don’t need to be scientists” they just need to know how science works.

Urry has been working with NZEI Te Riu Roa, which is also stepping into the breach. A basic tenet of New Zealand’s highly successful post-war education system was that teachers were able to identify their own on-going professional learning and development (PLD) needs and develop training to meet them. In that tradition, NZEI’s new Centre for Educational Excellence is working with members and Victoria University’s MacDiarmid Institute to develop science PLD that will be driven by what teachers need, rather than it being imposed from the outside.

An initial survey of members has found that most are keen to learn more about science and that they want to learn through hands-on activities, preferably at their own school.


But will NZEI Te Riu Roa then become just another provider in a crowded marketplace?

Ally Bull, from the New Zealand Council from Educational Research, co-authored the reports being written for the ministry on science community engagement with schools. She says that there are many new initiatives out there. “The science community is working with schools, but some are reinventing the wheel. There’s no coordination  and it’s not always clear what the purposes of some of the initiatives are.”

Schools may also have to pay for programmes out of operating budgets, or science bodies may have very limited money to spend on initiatives, and that raises the issue of funding. New Zealand, according to Bull’s report, is good at funding new initiatives, but is not so good at long-term funding. But that’s a separate issue (see box).

Bridging the gap

In the meantime, Bull says, scientists and teachers speak different languages, and a real effort is needed to bridge that gap. But again, she repeats the idea that teachers don’t have to become scientists, but they do need to understand the nature of science. “Teachers do need to make a huge change in what they consider is important in school science. Teachers don’t need a whole lot of detailed factual knowledge, but they do need to understand what science is, what it can and cannot do, and what is valued in science. Teachers’ own educations will not have prepared them for this.”

The New Zealand Curriculum is clear that students must explore science so they can “participate as critical, informed, and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role.” That is, students may not be planning to be scientists but they do need the tools to be “citizen scientists”” whether in a traditional sense, such as in making or fixing things, or in a socio-scientific sense, such as being able to make informed decisions or being able to participate in a culture than values science.

So how can teachers learn how to think like a scientist so they can be effective in their teaching with students? NZEI’s Nicola Meek has been working with the MacDiarmid Institute and says Alan MacDiarmid himself has given a powerful clue. “He was often asked how he became a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. His reply was that first of all you ask yourself a really simple child-like question” like, why does this work or why doesn’t this work?” then you work, work, work” then you ask the questions again: why? how? why not? “Teachers and students are very good at asking these kinds of questions‘ children have a strong natural curiosity.”

She also notes that teachers can help scientists. “Scientists need to be able to communicate simply and clearly so being in the classroom can be very useful for them to develop their skills too.”

National Standards

NZEI’s initiative is in its early days, but it may have the advantage over other providers in being able to marry the world of science and the world of teachers in simple and profound ways. It may also help drive the New Zealand education system back to its roots as a world-leader in child-centred learning.

In Karori, Rita Urry says the current narrow focus on National Standards makes science teaching even harder but that teachers are keen to learn. “I think that if teachers can access the right situation” where they feel wanted and their ideas valued, where it’s not above their heads, where they feel they can take it back to the classroom and they can implement it” then they will learn.”

She warns that if we don’t get it right with young children, then the task becomes more difficult. “Science is such a valuable topic, but if we don’t get our children enthused when they are really young” before they’re ten” then it’s really hard.”

Science for some?

The government’s rhetoric about the need for more science in schools and more science graduates seems to belie its own findings. A Department of Labour report predicts that job growth in the medium term is more likely to be in retail, service industries, business services, construction and agriculture” than in science and engineering.

And the Ministry of Education’s report on science engagement with schools shows that teachers in high decile schools are “more likely to have ready access to scientists¦ than teachers in deciles 1 and 2 schools”. High decile schools are also more able to fund science-related field trips and activities and are more likely to have students who are ready to learn about science” that is, they’re not hungry, sick or transient.

So is the current emphasis on science in education a chimera” children in high decile schools might get quality science education while low decile students are in reality being trained (via National Standards) to be compliant, low-paid service workers?

NZEI president Judith Nowatarski says teachers are too professional to let that kind of agenda operate in schools without challenging it. “Every New Zealand child deserves a quality education, and teachers will go to their utmost to achieve that.

“If one door closes, we simply have to look for another.”


Here’s a selection of science resources and providers available to educators: