When Scitech’s Aboriginal Education Program rolls into remote Western Australian schools with its hands-on science-engagement show, class attendance soars towards 100%, the gap-toothed grins of primary schoolers spread from ear to ear and teenagers start asking questions! “Can you stay longer?” is a lingering refrain.
“STEM skills are critical for all our citizens to become as prosperous as possible,” says Nick Wood, director of Scitech’s Statewide department. His team of some 24 science presenters radiates from Scitech central—the hub for science exploration, thought-sparking exhibitions and award-winning science exports—in West Perth, to schools and communities in every corner of Western Australia.
Scientific literacy allows people “to make critical judgments about some of the things we deal with everyday—things like energy and water management,” says Alan Brien, the outgoing CEO of Scitech.
In 17 years of leading the talented executive team of this not-for-profit organisation, Brien is most proud of having made Scitech a household name in WA as the word that’s synonymous with science: “But not in an elitist way, in a way that everyone feels comfortable with, that science is an important part of life and it’s there for everyone to touch.”
This year, GE is partnering with Scitech in its mission to increase awareness, interest, capability and participation in STEM. On a recent visit to WA, Geoff Culbert, President and CEO of GE Australia, New Zealand and PNG was impressed by every aspect of Scitech operations. But, he says, “When we talked about the AEP and how it not only engages the kids, but inspires and trains the teachers in STEM subjects, I thought it was one of the best ideas I’d ever heard of.”
“Science is important because kids need to know about the world around them: what’s happening, how things work, and that there are bigger things out there than what’s in their community and their families.” Cassandra Wilson, Dawul Remote Community School
For children who may speak English as a second or third language, and whose classes frequently include kids in several different school years, engagement in science takes a special combination of visual cues, inclusiveness and making things easy for teachers.
And because the AEP roadshow can only get to each of some 50-plus remote schools on a three-year touring cycle, a layered approach is critical to maintaining the “stickiness” of scientific interest: “Our first connection is to do workshops with the kids, to ignite curiosity and imagination and trial and error, and experimentation,” says Valerie Deal, Scitech’s director of excitement.
On and between tours, the organisation’s professional-learning team also connects with teachers and Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers (AIEOs) to provide engaging ways of teaching cross-curricular activities. “For a lot of teachers, science is out of their field, they’re not necessarily comfortable delivering lessons in science and maths,” says Deal.
The third layer is a selection of DIY Science Kits that each delivers a term’s worth of experiments for a class of 30 children to the schools’ doorsteps. They include instructions, equipment for everyone to participate, and evaluation exercises. These self-contained classroom resources are directly linked to the curriculum—there are DIY Science Kits covering each of Chemical, Physical, Earth and Space, and Biological Sciences—and they really stoke the fires of discovery.
At Ngalangangpum Remote Community School, Year 5 & 6 teacher Belinda Provis says, “We’ve been doing the liquid, solid, changing-to-gases experiments and the kids have been loving those ones.” Although many of the requirements for such experiments are simple, they’re still hard to access in the Kimberley. Having everything arrive at once in the one box, “just makes things so much easier”, says Provis.
AEP is co-supported by BHP, Chevron and Rio Tinto. These industry partners along with others such as Alcoa and Woodside have been decades-long partners in supporting Scitech’s STEM endeavours through a suite of exhibition galleries, teacher-support programs, student workshops and broader community science initiatives. Their financial contribution is an important piece of the triumvirate of Scitech funding sources, which comprises State government, industry and Scitech-generated income from entry fees and world-touring exhibitions.
“Scitech has been fantastic! We started using the DIY Kits a couple of years ago and the teachers found them such a fantastic resource, for them to implement in their classrooms.” Rosie Antonio, Ngalangangpum Remote Community School
“But you can’t change behaviours on your own, or just with money,” says Brien. “When we started talking to industry, it wasn’t about sponsorship, or about logos. It was about how the social capital of a company can work in tandem with us—people donating time, employees holding workshops with our staff on how to develop the use of technology in the classroom, and so on.”
Currently touring the remote Kimberley, a tag-team of presenters flies in and out to outback airfields between May and September, to meet the truck packed with resources as it races ahead of isolating floods, or winds up its windows against the dusty dry.
“It’s a great program,” says Elise “Stuey” Nelson, Principal of Dawul Remote Community School, just off the Great Northern Highway south of Durack. “It’s amazing that Scitech are able to access such remote places, and it’s really important for our kids. It’s important for them to feel valued. They don’t see the difference between where they live and what’s happening in the city. They’re kids, so they need access to those good education programs that everyone else is getting.”
There’s plenty of inspiration on hand as GE devises its own contribution to Scitech programs. Nick Wood anticipates collaborating with GE to build a digital element into the DIY Science kits, and to exploring, “how we might advance digital capabilities, and remote access to our resources”.
GE mentors and recent graduates will take part in Scitech’s Science Cafe event—talking careers with high-school students. For visitors to Scitech, dashboards of how data can be analysed and visualised to understand and improve processes and outcomes may be engineered to bring the digital-industrial world to life.
An independent study conducted a few years ago by Edith Cowan Institute for Educational Research found that in the wake of an AEP tour, “Overwhelmingly the indication was an improvement in students’ enjoyment of science, their curiosity about science, their rating of science as a favourite subject,” says Wood. “And there were really significant increases in the teachers’ confidence to teach science—that’s the real kicker for the program.”