This post is a reflection on some talks/lectures/political grandstanding from CONASTA 67.

This past holidays I attended CONASTA 67 – the annual conference of the Australian Science Teachers Association. It was good, very good. Mostly.

The structure of the conference is such that you have some keynotes each day from some Scientists that are all inspirational and such and then you have workshops from actual teachers. Suffice to say, I think this conference would be much improved by focusing on the work of Science teachers as opposed to Scientists for several reasons. Firstly, what I do every day is not Science. I educate. It’s great, I went down the Science road for a very brief period and I know the difference. My job as an educator is phenomenal (yes it’s hard and sometimes it sucks, but I love it). As a Science Educator, it’s important that I understand science and preferable if I have a deep knowledge of science. BUT do I need to be an expert scientist? No. Not at all. I need to be an expert educator and again, that’s a different field altogether.

Punk Rock Darwin

Secondly, I think what we do is important and worthy in its own right. I don’t think I spend my time adoring great scientists the way I used to when I was a Science student or working in the lab. I mean, Charles Darwin – you will always be my homeboy. For sure. But not necessarily for your Science anymore. The reason I love Darwin was his ability to write a story. His reluctant defiance of the structures of the time. Chuck D. is a reluctant punk rock warrior, spreading the truth to the masses through the written word. He educated the world. That is why Charles Darwin is the man as far as I’m concerned – put him up there with Galileo. It’s the teachers that really grab me. My current science idols – they’re not necessarily the greatest or most important scientists, they’re science communicators/educators. Sagan. One word, any science teacher worth her NaCl gets it. Although, maybe I’m dating myself now and I should say Cara Santa Maria or deGrasse Tyson. This leads me to my third point which may mean I’m wrong about the focus of the Keynotes.

Thirdly, I realised that I may not share a common goal with all of my fellow science educators. Maybe I’m wrong in the rant that I’m about to embark on. I’m under no illusion that the majority of senior chemistry students in my class (or any of our classes) are off to become working scientists. And nor should they. It’s a job that isn’t for everyone, and that has nothing to do with academic ability btw. My goal as a Science Educator is to develop scientifically literate and curious people. I think this should be our goal and not the production of scientists.

I want a capable society where people are strong critical thinkers about the bullshit that gets presented to them. This benefits all of us. Let me be frank, I think Science education should be compulsory until the end of school (as should math, HSIE, and art) so that our society is well rounded and capable. I want students to have the skillset of science and critical thinking, not because they’ll make great scientists, but because I want my society and those making key decisions to have the skillset of science and critical thinking at their fingertips.

The lectures by some of the scientists were outstanding. I love listening to people passionate wax lyrical about their field. It filled me with a tremendous amount of cool factoids and background knowledge to bring back to school. However, it will have little impact on my work as a Science teacher beyond that though. I know scientists are enthusiastic and passionate about Science. I am myself and I always have been. There are several excellent English teachers at my school who do a better job of getting students excited about Science than many Science teachers I know. Because enthusiasm is contagious.

The real standouts were Dr. Tanya Latty, who taught us about different types of intelligence in animals and problem-solving behaviors in slime molds and ants (see below), and Dr. Brad Tucker who outlined the need and purpose of an Australian space agency. As great as these talks were, and they were, I think they would have been more beneficial to our Students. It would be great for our students to see what a scientist looks like. Both of these charismatic and enthusiastic speakers would help to bust those stereotypes for our kids and our girls in particular. I would love for our students to see scientists who weren’t necessarily the greatest students but instead through curiosity and enthusiasm are able to achieve great things. In fact, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is exactly what some Science teachers need.

But these weren’t the only “scientist” and associated presenters. Alan Finkel presented a talk that seemed all positive on the surface but I had genuine problems with. His talk and Simon Birmingham (federal minister for education) will be the subject of my next post. I find it troubling at an event like this when politicians or our “chief-scientist” play to the crowd with the lines of “yeah science is so important -woo –  all kids should do science” followed by the bait and switch of “this is what industry wants”. I struggle with the idea of treating our students as widgets to fill an economic need. Education is in itself a public good not a funnel to fill the needs of industry.

Alan Finkel, chief scientist and "education expert"
Alan Finkel, chief scientist and “education expert” Source:

Where I really learned a lot though were the small presentations and workshops by teachers. Teachers presenting niche ideas that were key to my practice as a teacher. Teachers telling stories about how they’ve been able to reach those difficult children. Teachers explaining how they’ve increased female participation in the STEM fields at their schools. Add to that, we have our own superstars. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need Eddy Woo at every conference I go to but there are other excellent teachers out there as well. Educators who are inspiring and have something to say.

I now have several teachers who if I had have seen them online in a video or read about them may have had that hero status – they way I look at Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hank Green or Dianna Cowern. Instead, because I met them at a conference, they’re peers and colleagues. People who I’m happy to just pop a quick tweet to and ask for help. In fact, there were no less than four previous winners of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching there, including the amazing Brett McKay. These four were given a panel session hosted by Robyn Williams of the ABC (himself a quality Science Communicator). How amazing would it have been for the teachers present to see these dynamic individuals in full flight for a lecture/demonstration into what makes them tick as teachers.

The most excellent Brett McKay
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching winner – Brett McKay

I think it’s time for us to look for our own heroes within the profession. I think this is the danger of referring to ourselves as Scientists, or geographers, or historians, or etc. We look without when we should be looking within for our inspirational figures. Remember – those who can,  do; and those who can’t contain their enthusiasm and want to make the world a better place, teach.