Each month, Refraction Education will bring you the ideas, experience and advice of an individual in the field of education.
This month we spoke to Sally Parker, science teacher and freelance writer, about how she engages her students, some all-time favourite lessons and her vision for the future of science education.

What do you do?

I teach a couple of science classes at Moriah College in Bondi Junction, a couple of science education classes at the University of Sydney, and I freelance science and/or philosophy education material which includes: writing study guides, workbooks, cartoons (Billi Nano), workshops, courses and journal papers; carrying out book and curriculum reviews; and consulting on digital educational games (Zoom for the ABC).

What is the most exciting part of your job?

Being part of learning environments where the focus is on trying to find out what is really going on in and around and beyond us in the natural world by sharing ideas, questions and knowledge. Science and philosophy complement each other so well; where one has shortcomings, the other fills the gap. Whenever I can, I combine them as learning approaches in order to enhance my students and my own knowledge and understanding of science and its impact on our lives.

Last year for the first time I entered my high school classes in the Community Problem Solving arm of the Australia Future Problem Solving Program and found this to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. The students identified problems in the community and used science to help respond to them. I had one group build a robotic rubbish bin that wandered around the school yard from student group to student group to collect rubbish – it was a huge hit! Another group made and experimented with piezo crystals.

This group is going to work this year to place the crystals in steps in dark areas around the school that will light up when people step on them. I am always inspired by the innovation of young active minds. The team that won a spot on the International team and will be competing in the USA later this year are working to make blood donation a smoother process so that blood banks can increase the number of blood donations they receive.

I am always inspired by the innovation of young active minds.

What do you think will be the ‘next big thing’ for classroom learning?

Last week I went to a presentation at the University of New South Wales on teaching excellence and actually, I believe, the focus was actually on the future of teaching. One of the topics discussed was the need to create more flexible learning environments, both the physical spaces – that allow group work, practical work, quiet independent research; as well as the pedagogical spaces – that provide opportunities that encourage creativity, communication and innovation.

A virtual tour of some of their new learning spaces showed large circularized areas with no clear ‘front’ of the room for the teacher, but many working stations around the outside of the room with desks and white boards and computer/media terminals in-the-round. Presentations could be made from anywhere in the room and there was a greater sense of the possibility of movement and adaptation of learning within the space itself.

What I also found exciting was the introduction of virtual learning experiences. We were shown virtual patients in use in the School of Medicine and virtual laboratory investigations in the School of Biochemistry. These virtual learning experiences provided truly blended learning for students who were able to use quality learning technology that would later help to make the most of real world learning experience.

For example, instead of using learning technology that is either not focused on enhancing real life learning, or is being used to completely replace real world learning experiences, blended learning uses technology to supplement real life learning. In virtual worlds created for blended learning, students can play and experiment, ask questions, discover solutions, and become familiar with the capabilities of equipment or processes with an inquiry based approach before they physically carry out the real investigation. From a teaching perspective this means that the student is better prepared for the real life learning experience, and that time and physical space restrictions can be overcome as the students complete the virtual part of the blended learning process anywhere and whenever they have the spare time.

In my own classroom in the last few months we have started to use these blended learning experiences with programs such as The Hour of Code, where students complete activities in virtual computer programming in preparation for real world programming, and with EcoMUVE, a virtual ecological environment where students learn environmental skills in order to discover causal patterns in ecosystems. I have been matching the virtual world experience with actual explorations of the ecological spaces in and around the school in order to blend the learning experience.

Can you recall any lessons you have participated in that have been particularly memorable? If yes, why was this the case?

Yes! I have a couple that stand out.

– A philosophy workshop on the Ethics of 3D printing. Last year I brought my USYD class and my Yr 9 science class together to participate in a workshop to explore the ethical issues surrounding the personal use of 3D printing. In groups the Uni and High school students played a concept game sharing their thoughts on provided examples of 3D printing by deciding whether they were ethically acceptable and or not. They used their ideas to write a set of criteria that might be used in the future to guide the home use of 3D printing.

– The theory of Phlogiston practical investigation. This is my favourite science lesson. I tell the students it is a real theory and we are going to investigate it by combusting magnesium strips. They expect the magnesium to weigh less after it has combusted (the phlogiston has been released) but it actually weighs more due to the incorporation of oxygen to make magnesium oxide! I have been doing this lesson with every class for many years and it never fails to be a winner with highly able or challenging students, whether they are generally interested in science or not. I think it works so well because they love using the Bunsen burners, busting the phlogiston theory and knowing they have measured the mass of the oxygen (this invisible thing they can’t see or feel or smell). I love it because it opens discussion about the process and history of science.

I like to provide a back story, context, fun, mystery, exploration, collaborative opportunities, relevance to the real world and/or real audiences for students as a component of their learning activities. These two instances that are most memorable to me because I feel we achieved most of these.

…an opportunity to practice collaborative learning where sharing of individual ideas can enhance the collective level of knowledge and understanding.

What do you see for the future of science education in Australia?

I don’t know what the future of science education in Australia will look like, but I would like to possibly help drive it by suggesting more:

– support for new teachers, such as a reduced first year teaching load

– collaborative learning opportunities, such as with industry and other learning facilities, particularly between secondary schools and universities

– opportunities to contribute student IP to real life challenges, such as through participation in citizen science projects, as well as competitions and placements where an opportunity to provide a solution to a real world problem is facilitated

– teachers trained to include scientific philosophical inquiry as part of their science classroom repertoire in order to enhance thinking and inquiry skills, help students make meaning of science, help students develop their own position on scientific issues and provide an opportunity to practice collaborative learning where sharing of individual ideas can enhance the collective level of knowledge and understanding. Philosophy also provides a wonderful opportunity to leave the laptops closed for a lesson.


If you would like access to the worksheets or lesson plans discussed above, Sally can be contacted at sally_parkerann@yahoo.com