Hands-on learning

Students use the scientific method to see the science in algae. Photo by Natalia Bateman Vargas.
21 December 2018

How do you make plant science interesting for school students? Mel Norris reports.

The outreach office of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis is a vibrant place.

There are bottles of brightly coloured liquids, bins of green and red balls, canisters of seeds, coloured paper, toys, a model chloroplast made of chicken wire, bubble wrap, green-painted petri dishes and assorted balls and pipe cleaners, and yes, a few plants too.

In the middle of this sits Alisha Duncan, the Education Officer for the Centre, which is based at the ANU Research School of Biology. Her job is to translate the Centre’s research to the school community and she’s passionate about science education.

She and her colleagues use all this stuff to bring photosynthesis to life for students and members of the public at events like Science in ACTion, ANU Open Day and school visits.

However, the Centre hopes to leave a lasting legacy too, and she has developed a series of lesson plans called ‘Planting science’ to help teachers bring photosynthesis to life in classrooms across Australia.

To make sure the lesson plans were useful, the Centre surveyed nearly 1000 primary school teachers.

“Teachers have very little time, and we wanted to create something they could print out and run with, even if they have no science background; that way, teachers can learn along with their students,” Alisha says.

In some cases, she was surprised at how low some of the teachers’ budgets were. “We had one teacher who responded that her science teaching budget was whatever she wanted to spend from her salary.”

The first set of lesson plans, for Foundation to Year Six, has been available since the beginning of this year and has been downloaded more than 1600 times by teachers all over Australia, ranging from remote towns in the Northern Territory to Tasmania and all other parts of Australia.

The plan for each year consists of between five and eight lessons with activities, ideas for investigation and profiles of working scientists, and it ties in with the Australian curriculum.

Most importantly, the supplies needed for each lesson cost no more than $20 for the whole class and can be bought at the supermarket, hardware store or eBay. For example, food grade agar from the grocer can be substituted for research agarose, and plant temperature can be measured with a basic laser thermometer from Bunnings.

Hands-on learning is important too. Alisha worked at Questacon as an undergraduate and spent time mentoring high school students on the Mt Jerrabomberra quarry site in Canberra.

“The work was hands-on which breaks down the barriers, you get instant engagement,” she says. “Working one-on-one with the students, taking that one student who doesn’t want to be there and then turning them around – that makes my heart sing!

“We wanted to make planting science lesson plans accessible to everyone, for all schools regardless of location, budget or education level, in the rural outback as much as capital cities.”

Giralang Primary School specialist science teacher Josie Floyd has tested the modules with her classes.

“The kids loved it,” she says. “The units are fantastic the way they introduce concepts and are very hands-on. The grade ones did a light experiment to understand that plants use different wavelengths, and that light is made up of different colours. They used torches with different coloured filters and grasped the concepts straight away.

“It was amazing for my professional development too. I was exposed to different ways of teaching concepts, and it was really enjoyable to be challenged.”

Alisha has developed a set of lesson plans for Years 7–10, which were released in September.