WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - Hutt Science Kits September 08, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Elias Rodriguez/ http://marktantrum.com)

Why I had to quit teaching to get science into primary schools

Every week over 8,000 primary school students around the country are doing science experiments in their classrooms, many in te reo Māori thanks to an initiative started in Tauranga. Chris Duggan explains why she felt compelled to start House of Science.   

After 15 years of teaching secondary science, I was horrified at the lack of knowledge students were arriving with in Year 9. Students were telling me they had never done any science, were not allowed to be part of the ‘science club’ at primary school and that science would never be ‘for them’.

I knew primary school teachers often lacked the confidence and tools to teach meaningful, hands-on science lessons. These are teachers who would love to teach science but are finding it difficult in a crowded curriculum with a lack of resources. This is happening in the shadow of new research from the UK this year which shows that by age 11 children have decided what careers they are not likely to follow.

This has huge implications for New Zealand. People without basic science literacy make uninformed decisions that impact themselves, their families, their communities, and our planet. As a country, we end up paying the price of these decisions socially and economically.

Students use a House of Science kit. (Image: supplied).

I was sitting in my office at school one day reading the 2013 Education Review Office (ERO) report which revealed that over 70% of NZ primary schools they visited did not have an effective science programme in place. This was the push I needed to do something. So I quit my job to set up the House of Science charity in Tauranga in 2014. The goal was to empower local primary school teachers to deliver hands-on science lessons. 

We now have branches in eleven regions across the North Island servicing over 300 schools. We consistently receive positive feedback from teachers who, with the help of our science resource kits, can now deliver great science lessons on a regular basis. Our science resource kit ‘library’ is tightly aligned to the New Zealand curriculum and include a huge array of topics, such as forensics, forces, fireworks, climate change, and nanoscale chemistry. This includes an experiment where students make nanoscale particles and observe their hydrophobic (water-repelling) properties. Why, you ask? Water repellent properties are useful for outdoor clothing, for electrical components and for surfaces you want to keep clean like car windscreens.

Ten percent of our member schools are kura kaupapa Māori so all House of Science resource kits are bilingual, ensuring Māori students can access the same quality resources in full-immersion schools. All our resource kits include traditional Māori stories or legends to help build the bridge between the science concepts and te ao Māori. We’re seeing many iwi directly support their kura by connecting us through their networks and supporting them financially so that kits can be in classrooms throughout the year. 

The enthusiasm from teachers for the kits has completely overwhelmed me. The model we have developed is ticking many boxes for them. A teacher from Pirinoa school recently said: “Today, some of my youngest (7 years old) stood up in front of the school and explained to everyone what elastic potential energy was, how it was created and what kinetic energy was.” How cool is that? It’s those moments that make this journey so fulfilling.

People often don’t realise there is a gender issue in science, even before we get to the students. We help address this by empowering the largely female primary teacher workforce to deliver science as a relevant, engaging and hands-on subject and showing their impressionable students that everyone can do this.

Teaching students about science can change their engagement with the planet (Image: supplied).

After five years we have seen phenomenal growth on a tiny budget. The number of schools that are using our kits has increased every year and we now provide our science kits to over 14% of all New Zealand primary and intermediate schools. School membership fees are heavily subsidised by sponsors and grants to ensure equitable access to our resources.

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Unfortunately, this is not enough to impact the national statistics. A 2018 report exposed abysmal results in science for children finishing primary school. The National Monitoring Study of Student Assessment shows just one in five Year 8 children are reaching the expected level of achievement in science – the worst figure of any learning area in the curriculum. I think this study shows that New Zealanders are at significant risk of losing scientific literacy across the board.

If our country’s leaders are serious about our future as a technologically innovative nation, then we need to invest in our children. The growing House of Science team is passionate about inspiring young New Zealanders’ interest in science through tangible learning experiences. We are desperate to bring this service into every school in the country. Our growth to date has relied solely on philanthropy: community grants, donors and sponsors. This is not realistic or attainable on a national scale. Surely, we owe it to the next generation to make science a priority through high expectations and resources in all New Zealand primary schools.

For more information contact info@houseofscience.nz or visit the website


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