Joanna Osborn, Queensland Trust for Nature.
Bulletin

A recipe for building ecological niches in schools

Blake Alexander Simmons (Queensland University of Technology and Boston University, USA)

At the 1968 IUCN General Assembly, Baba Dioum famously stated, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Amidst ongoing declines in Australian students’ scientific literacy, growing concerns over STEM representation within the Australian Curriculum, and national strategies to increase gender equity in STEM professions, inspiring the next generation of conservation scientists and practitioners remains a significant challenge in the classroom. 

Schools—and particularly teachers—have a lot on their plates. Numeracy and literacy remain the top priority in Australian schools; and in many schools and regions across Australia they may even be the only priority. An over-crowded, nationally mandated curriculum leads to competing demands on students and teachers. The desire to develop and maintain a successful ‘formula’ for achieving high student performance reduces the potential for teachers and principals to explore alternative learning and engagement strategies. Given these challenges, how do we find space for conservation sciences? 

Armed with an arsenal of university and industry partnerships, in-school champions, PhD candidates, and an inquiry-based approach to learning, the Wonder of Science program may have the recipe to unlock the potential of the next generation. This University of Queensland-based program is working to promote a STEM culture in schools across Queensland by designing innovative and engaging challenge tasks for students (Years 5-9), and showcasing their projects and experiments at regional and state conferences. At the heart of the program are the Young Science Ambassadors—Queensland PhD candidates that travel to schools across the state to deliver the challenge tasks and facilitate the students’ success. The program continues to expand, having attracted more than 100 Young Science Ambassadors, reaching more than 5,500 students, and facilitating more than 20,000 hours of face-to-face contact between students and scientists in 2018 alone. 

During my two years as a Young Science Ambassador with the program, I spent more than 70 hours interacting with students and teachers across the state. I taught students about my research on deforestation in Queensland, ran student workshops about science communication and ‘sci-art’, and assisted them with a variety of challenge tasks, including experiments related to sustainable living and the intersection of agriculture and biodiversity. I watched as students’ scientific curiosity flourished in their investigations, and I listened to teachers’ stories of past struggles with student engagement and their gratitude for the program. 

The success of the Wonder of Science program and—most importantly—the participating students is the result of a dedicated and strategic approach to tackling the biggest challenges to STEM education in the classroom.

Providing students with extracurricular conservation educational opportunities, such as “Camp Koala” developed by Wonder of Science and the Queensland Trust for Nature, can enrich the Australian Curriculum by illustrating real-world applications of STEM concepts.

So, what are the ingredients for success? 

First, every project or experiment brought to the classroom needs to be aligned to the existing Australian Curriculum. This eliminates competing demands on students and teachers by providing innovative and engaging tasks that meet the existing targets and metrics of performance within the school. Importantly, you should be able to show how the tasks deliver on the numeracy and literacy goals of the curriculum. Conservation-related topics, such as ecology and sustainability, offer an exceptional opportunity to integrate science, technology, engineering and maths in a way that enhances numeracy and literacy in interdisciplinary, real-world contexts. Interdisciplinary teaching enhances critical thinking, and introducing conservation applications of STEM early in the classroom may ultimately improve student performance in all of their subjects. 

Second, there needs to be STEM leaders within the school to propel participation and maintain focus. Harnessing the power of local ‘champions’ is an integral step in promoting the adoption of conservation education in schools. Once an internal driving force is present, opportunities grow rapidly to inspire other teachers and neighbouring schools to participate. For example, Wonder of Science offers a professional learning program for upscaling teachers’ skills, giving them the capacity to step up as STEM leaders within their schools. With the right champions in place, these outreach programs can be an annual staple of the science curriculum and a source of school pride. 

Third, a focus on strategic partnerships between schools, universities and industry is crucial for enabling widespread success and support. These partnerships can be useful for building capacity and garnering volunteers, securing continual funding, minimising costs for participating schools and enhancing the quality of outreach through add-on experiences outside of the classroom. For example, in partnership with the Queensland Trust for Nature, Wonder of Science organises Camp Koala, an overnight camp where students collect biodiversity data, plant trees, and learn about biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes. 

Finally, demystifying the mainstream image of scientists is of paramount importance to tackling equity issues in STEM. Providing students with the opportunity to learn from and interact with real scientists in the classroom can increase their excitement and engagement in the school visits, allow for more personal connections with scientists and inspire interest in pursuing STEM careers. Targeting self-identity is also important here. More than 70% of Young Science Ambassadors working for Wonder of Science are women, and 20% are international students. By maximising the racial and gender diversity of scientists entering schools, students in underrepresented demographics can meet a scientist who looks like them, which will help establish scientists as role models and encourage students to pursue STEM careers. 

While these ingredients will help build more ecological niches within Australian schools, greater systemic change is ultimately required. However, we can all have an impact. There is a growing wealth of resources available to educators looking for conservation-related teaching materials, such as those from the American Museum of Natural History. Conservation scientists can participate in science outreach events and programs, like Soapbox Science or CSIRO’s STEM Professionals in Schools. Research Higher Degree students in Queensland can join Wonder of Science as Young Science Ambassadors. Parents can talk to their child’s science teacher to discuss opportunities for visiting their classroom or giving a guest presentation about their research and life as a scientist. 

By increasing our individual outreach efforts to schools, we can contribute to an educational system that prepares and inspires students to tackle the greatest conservation challenges of the 21st century. We must remember that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated. And at this rate, communicating to children might be more effective than communicating to adults. 

For more information, contact Blake (blakeas@bu.edu).

Read more from the September 2020 edition of the ESA Bulletin.