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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Finding authenticity: school-wide perspectives on the nature of science

The nature of science provides authentic contexts for both teachers and students at Cashmere High School, writes MELISSA WASTNEY.

DSC 7058 smallAbove: Year 10 students Lily Williams, Anzac Gallate and Saoirse Hill-Shearman performing a heart dissection.

The nature of science is described in the curriculum as being the overarching strand of the science learning area. Sometimes described as a ‘way of knowing’, it encourages a focus on the acquisition of capabilities above the memorisation of science facts.

The science faculty at Cashmere High School has recorded a 56 per cent increase in student participation in classes over the past four years, and teacher Leith Cooper believes this is reflection of the school’s commitment to teaching through this lens.

“I think the increased student numbers is a good sign we’re on the right track, although it’s not so much us, but rather the nature of science and the way we deliver the curriculum,” says Leith.

Based in southern Christchurch, Cashmere is a co-educational state secondary school of 1700 students. Its science faculty comprises 15 full-time teachers, from a wide variety of career backgrounds. 

Cashmere’s head of science faculty David Paterson is currently completing his PhD on the links between the nature of science and student engagement. In 2014, he took a 12-month sabbatical to complete his research, for which he focused on teaching and learning science at Cashmere High School.

Leith Cooper teaches junior science classes, year 11 science and senior physics. He says that under David’s leadership, the faculty is thriving.

“David has encouraged us as a department to undertake a lot of professional development on the nature of science, and his enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm, and that naturally extends to our students, I think.

“In his role as head of science faculty, David has provided inspirational leadership on the nature of science, with a view to improving student engagement. Our aim is to make science relevant, fascinating, and fun,” he says.

Leith is currently in his fifth year teaching science and physics at Cashmere High School. Prior to this he completed a PhD in particle physics and then worked for ten years as an investment banking research analyst.

He’s often asked about the connection between physics, investment banking and teaching. The answer, he says, lies in the nature of science.

“I view it simply as a way of critical thinking – applying the scientific method holistically to seek answers to specific questions,” he says. “Those questions could come from any discipline, whether it is physics or investment banking.”

When it comes to his classroom practice, Leith says he uses the scientific method to guide his teaching. “I’m continually experimenting with ways to engage students and improve their learning.”

Harnessing the nature of science to spark interest

Leith says that focusing on human diseases in his junior science class has seen a great level of student engagement and interest.

“It’s relevant to students and their own health – as well as the health of their families because we’ve been covering genetics as well. When the students look at recurring health issues in their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they start to see patterns and it all becomes much more relevant to them.”

The research project extends into a piece of science communication. Students are encouraged to consider how best to write and present their work.

“With this comes a lot of student choice; for example, they could consider design, video, writing a play. Their work must include some key criteria, such as symptoms, causes, and possible treatments. But we believe that good science communication is an important element of the nature of science.”

Leith believes that many students find the project “a real hook” – and the result is high levels of engagement. Authenticity is the ever-present thread running through the work, and each student is encouraged to keep a real audience in mind when writing up the work. Read an example of a student project at the end of this article.

DSC 7074 smallAbove: Anzac Gallate and Saoirse Hill-Shearman investigating how a stent works while performing a heart dissection.

What’s the point?

Leith says his junior science students are good at asking, “What’s the point?”

“Actually, it’s a very fair question. I think it’s our job to really address that: what exactly is the point? How can we make it meaningful?”

Showcasing careers that incorporate science is another way in which the department is increasing engagement among its students. A recent eye check-up saw Leith inviting the optician into the classroom to talk about their work. In the past a hairdresser talked to the students about the chemistry of hair dye.

“Introducing these ideas always generates a lot of discussion and interest among our students. It’s all science – there is science behind everything.

“We’re showing our students that we can apply the scientific method to everything we do, whether it’s research in a lab, or making things, or running a business.”

Strategies for engagement

  • Some of the strategies for improving science engagement at Cashmere have included:
  • Rewriting the junior science curriculum to focus explicitly on the NoS
  • Organising science career modules and visits so that students can see how widely science is used in a variety of careers… not just in the lab!
  • Sharing topical video clips and news articles on exciting science news as it happens around the world
  • Hiring teachers with real-life science work experience they can bring into the classroom (e.g. a precious metal geologist, a specialist in kiwi conservation, an electrical engineer,a particle physicist and former investment banker)
  • Providing teachers with regular professional development on NoS and encouraging them to explore and use the NoS in their own classroom, in their own way
  • Promoting national and international science competitions, clubs and activities (such as science club, electronics club, astronomy club etc.)
  • Organising overseas science trips (e.g. to NASA Space Camp, Queensland’s reef and rainforest habitats, and the faculty is currently organising a trip to South Africa to be part of a conservation research project).

DSC 7095 smallAbove: Year 10 students Lily Williams, Saoirse Hill-Shearman and Anzac Gallate investigating heart bypass surgery and how a stent works while performing a heart dissection.

Head of faculty David Paterson

New Zealand Science Teacher asked David Paterson some questions about his research into teaching Nature of Science at Cashmere High School.

You are writing your PhD thesis about teaching the Nature of Science. Can you explain a bit about your research and results so far?

My research is aimed at answering the question, “Does teaching with a Nature of Science approach increase the engagement of students in class?”

To do this, I have first surveyed and interviewed the teachers to find out what they know about the nature of science. This proved to be a very interesting and worthwhile task in itself, one I recommend to every department head. It provided an opportunity for professional conversations on what I believe is at the heart of science teaching: What is science? What are the most important things we are trying to convey to our students?

I also learned more about the backgrounds of my staff and discovered they did have good nature of science knowledge from a whole range of life and work experiences.

Then I observed many lessons and provided in-depth feedback to the teachers on their use of the nature of science in class, and the effect of this on the students. I interviewed both the teachers and selected students about the lessons and information about what works was fed back to all science staff.

Finally, a large-scale survey was done with all Year 9 classes over two years to see whether their attitudes towards science had changed as a result of our teaching programme.

The results indicate that teaching with a Nature of Science approach does engage students, but that this is not always easy for teachers to do. It requires support, training and the provision of new materials, as well as the willingness to try something new. However, when done well, the teachers can see the difference in students’ behaviour and participation, with increased levels of enjoyment for both students and teacher.

Why do you think the nature of science is so important in science education?

Teaching with this perspective gives students the skills and attitudes that will enable them to succeed in the modern world. Information, facts, or traditional knowledge are more accessible than ever due to the internet, and the pace of science and technological change is increasing.

Content knowledge is still very important, but students need to be able to use that knowledge, ask probing questions, and make good decisions based on the available evidence.

Governments around the world are including NoS in science curricula in order to produce informed citizens, and to encourage the flexible creative thinking that is needed to cope with a rapidly changing world.

There are considerable efforts being made to increase the numbers of students taking science subjects as many governments also see science and technology as key drivers of their economies.

I also believe that if our students leave school with open minds that are constantly questioning and challenging, searching for the answers with the available evidence, then we do them and our planet a great service. We need citizens who can resist the waves of extremism that trouble our world, and who have the flexibility and creativity to solve the enormous environmental problems that affect all life on earth.

How are you incorporating this into the curriculum at your school? What has been the result?

We have rewritten or refocused our junior topics to be more contextual and relevant to the students, which has often meant combining the different curriculum strands. For example, the old unit ‘Light’ was very much traditional physics, but is now taught as part of radiation and the body, which incorporates not only light rays and vision but also other aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum and their effects on humans.

The results have been very positive, with high levels of enjoyment being reported by the students in surveys and high pass rates in topic tests. This has translated into the senior school where the number of students opting for science subjects has increased by 56 per cent over the past four years.

What is your vision for science teaching at Cashmere High?

Our vision for science has always been that it should be ‘fascinating and fun’, and teaching with a nature of science perspective is a great way to achieve this. We include as much practical activity in lessons as possible and increasingly these are ‘minds-on’ as well as ‘hands-on’, with NoS providing a questioning structure and rationale to increase the depth of thinking, or fascination, to go with the wonder of exploring new ideas and the fun of doing experiments.

DSC 7112 smallAbove: Lily Williams and Anzac Gallate collaborating on their research project using online resources compiled by school librarian Saskia Hill. 

Saskia Hill, Cashmere High School librarian

Saskia Hill is school librarian at Cashmere High and her speciality is information fluency. She works closely with teachers to help find students relevant print and digital media for research projects. For example, when a teacher is embarking on a new project, he or she will email Saskia with the research task prior to assigning it to students. Saskia then sources relevant information from both print and digital media, collating the resources on a dedicated internet page to help get students started. 

Saskia also provides students and teachers with targeted seminars on how to perform effective research on the internet: from getting started, to using clustered search engines such as Carrot2, rather than relying on a ‘JGI’ (just google it) mindset. She helps students to critically evaluate websites using the CRAP test (Currency, Reliability, Authority, and Purpose), and using online referencing tools such as BibMe and RefMe to help students properly reference their work.

New Zealand Science Teacher asked Saskia about her work, and information fluency in particular:

How do you use the information fluency programme to support students and staff at Cashmere High School?

Information fluency is, I believe, one of the most vital skills a student can have in order to help them negotiate the masses of information in our modern world. It is­ the intersection of traditional information literacy (the ability to determine the extent of, effectively and efficiently assess, critically evaluate, incorporate, and use ethically sourced information [1]) with computer skills and critical thinking.

When students are faced with a need for information – any information, whether it is for school, hobbies, or personal interest – the process is the same. Almost all of them reach for their mobiles or for their nearest device to check Google, invariably eliciting results and considering their search successful. But is it really?

We may call them ‘digital natives’ but in reality students need the skills to discover whether or not the site they have selected contains quality ethical information that they can then access and transform into knowledge, rather than simply transfer it from page to page.

Students have little knowledge or understanding of the loaded algorithms the search engines such as Google use and don’t realise that what gets pushed to the top of the search list is not necessarily aligned to their agenda, but is aligned instead to Google’s.

At Cashmere High School we provide a library service whereby assessment tasks are sent by the teaching staff to our team and we create a webpage tailored to that task. It includes a step-by-step linked plan for students’ tasks, a link to a reading list of relevant books, and live links to databases and online encyclopaedias, site assessment tools, clustering search engines, useful websites, and our school-adopted online referencing tool.

Each class then gets a preliminary information fluency session and we go through the page identifying and highlighting places to go, tailored tools to use and strategies for successful searching. The physical books are showcased and the students then begin their research. Library staff work alongside teaching staff with each student to make sure they know how to access each aspect of the library’s resources.

This programme has been hugely successful and, whilst it takes time for students to fully build the skills to assess websites quickly and efficiently, the quality of information accessed has improved immensely.

We suggest that sites such as Wikipedia are an excellent place to go in order to get a great overview if you are truly mystified about a topic, but there is a caveat. Go there and get the key events, dates, people but then takes those details and search more reliable sources, one where students can identify the authors and creators and check their credentials.

By providing an externally accessible webpage as a curation point, we hope to provide a ‘library without walls’ that can be accessed from anywhere, anytime. Yes, the physical books remain in the library and for some subjects they are the most vital resources.

For others, they provide a base upon which students layer up-to-the-minute web resources. It is about using the right tool for the right job, and information fluency teaches them that.

How important do you think it is for students to have authentic research tasks and communicate their research to authentic audiences?

I believe it is vital for students to learn these skills in authentic contexts. I am a huge fan of ‘just in time versus just in case’ resource provision and learning. There is little to no point in our schools providing learning experiences or opportunities that are isolated and disconnected from students and the world.

By providing authentic, inquiry driven, personalised tasks, students can engage with their chosen topic in ways that are not necessarily open to them when others choose the topic for them and it is done simply to get marks rather than for a wider purpose.

For example, Saoirse’s article was the product of a teacher inviting students to create a piece of work for a specific purpose with real world application on a topic that was of interest or relevant to her.

It not only kept the purpose of her writing in her head at all times but it gave her an opportunity to explore something real and authentic in her life and create an end product that could potentially help others.

When these authentic opportunities are given by teachers, the students often don’t even realise the skills they are learning or refining, as they are absorbed by the actual purposeful and meaningful task.

[1] Definition adapted from the American Library Association, 2015

DSC 7121 smallAbove: Saoirse Hill-Shearman embarking on her research project using online resources compiled by school librarian Saskia Hill.

Saoirse Hill-Shearman, Year 10 student

A student in Leith’s Year 10 class, Saoirse Hill-Shearman, explored a disease that had great relevance to her whanau. Retinitis pigmentosa is a degerative eye disease that both her aunt Zoe and her mother suffer from.  Saoirse’s research project is published below.

New Zealand Science Teacher asked Saoirse about the process of investigating the genetic disease.

How did you go about choosing the topic for your research project?

My science teacher Mr Cooper asked my class to carry out a research project on a human disease. It could be circulatory, respiratory, or genetic. He also suggested we choose something that was of interest to us, and because I’m at risk of developing retinitis pigmentosa, based on my genetic history, I felt it was a topic of interest and relevance to me.

Who was your intended audience?

I knew from the start of the project that I wanted to inform and advise the readers, but not in a way that it was a long list of facts about RP. I mean, I might as well have copied and pasted a link and handed it in. So I decided to write it like a magazine article, like one of those ‘real life’ stories in Woman’s Day for example. I guess my target audience was the readers of those kinds of magazines.

How did you do your research?

My school librarian really helped me out a lot. She provided me with a wide range of reputable sites, via digital and print mechanisms, all via the school library website which is available at all times to all students. Having such a large spectrum of information made it easy for me to pick the best and most useful information for my project. I also used primary sources from the retinitis pigmentosa agencies in New Zealand that my aunty Zoe (the subject of the interview) suggested, so that I could direct people there also and therefore make the article more useful.

How did you choose what information to include?

My target audience heavily influenced what information I wanted to include. I wanted to give the readers a basic overview of the disease, show the impact it has on sufferers, and provide places where people could go to gain different perspectives on the disease.

I was essentially going for a lightly scientific, easy-read piece; a clear way of communicating the science.

Why do you think science communication is important?

I believe it’s important because it allows us to gain a better understanding of the world around us, through the work others have done. For example, climate change. If it is established that a few small lifestyle changes could delay by hundreds of years the progress of the Earth becoming too hot to sustain human life, then science communication becomes vital. It’s a bit off-topic but it sums up what I think.

On another note, I had my preliminary tests for retinitis pigmentosa recently, and I showed no signs of it, which is good news. I still have to go for a definitive test, which will show me whether or not I will ever have it in my lifetime.

New Zealand Science Teacher has published the article written by Saoirse's as part of the unit on human health. You can find it here.

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