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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Individually-designed physics lessons get remarkable results

Fenella Colyer has won the Prime Minister’s Science Prize for teaching but says she’s just warming up.

The science behind waka design and traditional navigation techniques is inspiring young physicists in South Auckland, thanks to their innovative teacher.

Fenella Colyer (above, with students) has won the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize, which was awarded at a Wellington ceremony on November 12.

Her work at Manurewa High School has resulted in a surge of success in its science department, which has included a 30 per cent increase in the number of Māori and Pasifika students taking up the subject in the past two years, and pass rates rising to 81 per cent, which is better than the national average.

In addition, thirteen students have won major science awards and many others have attended science events (symposiums, summer schools, etc.) around the country.

Fenella has been teaching science at Manurewa High School for seventeen years. The head of physics at the multicultural South Auckland school says her work there marked the beginning of a different approach to teaching.

“I don’t think I would have had that success if I hadn’t come to this school, if I’m honest. It’s where I’ve had to change my entire educational outlook,” she says.

Previously, she had taught at a wealthy girls’ school in South Africa, and her arrival at Manurewa High came with the realisation that her approach to teaching physics would have to change to suit the multicultural nature of South Auckland.

“I thought to myself: ‘I’ll have to sink or swim.’ I learned a lot from the students – just listening and observing them to see what worked and what didn’t.”

Finding ways to engage

A key focus for her was demystifying science exams and giving students the confidence to explore complicated scientific concepts.

“I used to think that making physics accessible meant making it the same for everyone – treating everyone in the same way. But then I realised that doesn’t work because everyone is different, and people have different ways of learning,” she says.

“I needed to modify the course content I taught. It had to be linked to culture, if possible. And of course, it had to be relevant and interesting to students.”

Fenella teaches from individually-tailored physics units. Those she has designed for her students include the physics of sport, waka design, and the navigational skills used by early Polynesians. All of these units are individually designed to work within The New Zealand Curriculum.

The way in which this content was delivered proved another key concern when Fenella first arrived at Manurewa, and continues to be a challenge today.

“The students learn better if they’re allowed to talk and communicate with each other and me. I grouped the desks and changed my seat to be amongst the groups of desks. I’m not at all into standing up at the front of the class and lecturing to the students. This new classroom environment works better for all of us,” she says.

Traditional Western education sees the teacher lecturing students, but that had to be changed to a more conversational style.

“My Māori and Pasifika students respond well to being taught in a cooperative situation. They need to be sitting in groups where they can share their ideas, and so I am the facilitator rather than lecturer.”

Fenella is interested in bringing knowledgeable community members into her science classes, for variety and interest.

“I had a woman from Manurewa marae come in and teach us flax weaving. From there, we did experiments with flax rope and testing elasticity.

“There were great opportunities for the learning of science concepts, but really, it’s only beginning. There’s much more to be done.”

Outside the classroom

Regular professional learning opportunities have helped Fenella stay inspired.

“My school has always sent me on any PD I wanted- and I’ve made full use of that. I’m lucky to have had a very supportive school management behind me,” she says.

She also attended night classes in computer studies so she could use ICT in her teaching, and helped Manurewa High introduce Sparklabs, which use touch screen technology for collecting real-time data in science. She is now modifying the Sparklab files to reflect New Zealand content.

The opportunities of her students are at the forefront of Fenella’s mind. Earlier this year, she received a 2013 Rotary Award for significant and meritorious service to the community, recognising her fundraising and sponsorship activities to help struggling students to attend science events. She also says she is open to sharing her specialised physics units with teachers from other schools, if they are interested.

Left: Fenella receiving her award from Prime Minister John Key.

The Prime Minister’s Science Teacher prize is worth $150,000. Manurewa High School principal Salvatore Gargiulo says some of the school’s $100,000 share of the prize money will be used to establish a science academy, to further boost the subject’s profile at the school.

“Mrs Colyer’s success breaks the low decile stereotype that such schools struggle to achieve top grades in what are considered difficult subjects,” he says.

“Dropping science, often for the wrong reasons, such as it being perceived as a tough subject, cuts out a raft of career opportunities.”

But Fenella stresses her work has just begun.

“I never feel bored in my job, it’s just starting to evolve and there’s so much more to do,” she says.

“I feel I’m just putting my toe in the water at the moment. I just want to keep trying new things and improving my teaching.”

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