How a PM's Prize winner ignites science engagement

Sarah Finney from Stirling East Primary School SA won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching for her ability to generate engagement and enthusiasm for the subject.
Oct 23, 2020
Top drawer
Sarah Finney winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools last year

Sarah Finney from Stirling East Primary School SA won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools in 2019. They don’t just give them out and Sarah was recognised for her ability to generate engagement and enthusiasm for the subject.

The prize has led her to a new phase of her career, she is now writing curriculum drawing upon her successes in igniting excitement for science in her students.

Sarah is leading an in-depth science inquiry unit and encouraging students to pursue their personal science interests in a public setting and she has been focused on finding new ways to improve student engagement and interaction within virtual (and physical) classroom settings.

She says, “This year, I have actually been less of a science teacher! The teachers with whom I have previously negotiated class swaps have reduced their time. Their replacement is teaching Science for their classes, leaving me with only my class to teach Science. This motivated me to apply for a job writing Science curriculum, which took me away from the classroom for a term but allowed me to dedicate my thinking to assisting all of South Australia’s Science teachers and students.

“I worked in a team of four inspiring teachers and one dynamic team leader to collaboratively design ‘pick up and go’ units of work for years 5 and 6 in science. Although I can’t say exactly which parts are mine, I worked hard to ‘South Australianise’ the curriculum, and I did a lot of research into bringing the curriculum home. I assisted others with ideas and learned a lot from them too. After receiving my Prime Minister’s Prize in 2019, I am proud to be a lifelong learner, and I am grateful for relationships I have made and experiences that enable me to grow in my profession.”

Sarah did manage to fit in some teaching in between her work on the curriculum, introducing some exciting hands on activities and inviting science stars to her classroom.

“In the two terms I have been at school, I have made a website with a link to Google Earth where people can do the soil layers in a jar test to determine soil quality, and upload their picture on to the global map. This website has had hits from rural Australia and England so far. Our class has had a Skype session with Dr Karl (Dr Karl Kruszelnicki) and learned about black holes, snot and bellybutton fluff. Many of the students’ parents were excited about this one.

“We participated in a webinar with Dr Brad Tucker and Gamilaraay / Yuwaalaraay astrophysicist Peter Swanton called ‘Sky Stories’. This activity linked with the HASS unit we were studying on Captain James Cook’s Endeavour voyage to Aboriginal astronomy. Our students also watched a National Science Week event, ‘Stars of the Sea’ Wild Livestream and students asked questions about the creatures on display.”

Sarah is always working on developing her students’ ability to question and think in an inquiring, self-directed way.

“Most recently, my focus has been on encouraging and engaging students through Socratic questioning techniques. Although this is not a new idea, it has become a focus of my work. One of the most powerful questions was, ‘What do you wonder?’ This forms the basis of the first science lesson of the year and becomes the beginning of each child’s inquiry project. I am currently using this method of teaching to promote inquiry into climate change in a HASS series of lessons with the help of resources from the ABC website and Australian television presenter, Craig Ruecastle, who presented the ABC’s War on Waste documentary and authored Fight For Planet A,” she says.

“Last term my class was also working on ‘Forces’ in Science and ‘Machines’ in technology, and the culmination of the learning was to build a Rube Goldberg machine. Students each collected ‘banqer’ money throughout the year as part of my classroom management plan. Other teachers could award them virtual money or fine them if necessary.

“During Rube Goldberg week, the first task for students is to group themselves into friendship groups and calculate their total and average balances per group. This fits in with the topics covered in mathematics. Once their totals and averages matched mine, students could spend their money on junk items, and I ran a shop for a week. The team with the highest average got to choose the first item.

“Students put their desks together in the classroom and built a machine to carry motion all across the classroom. It looked chaotic, but the learning was incredible. I ran two auctions for the prized items, some amazingly long carpet roll cardboard tubes. These allowed one group to build their machine part over a doorway and connect to the next group. Some of the students’ reflections from this learning were: ‘we learned how to work together and use our creativity’, and ‘I really enjoyed doing this and I just want to do it again’.”

While Covid has played havoc with teaching schedules, her school’s tech focussed way of teaching left them in a good place when it came to remote teaching.

“Our school has been an Apple Distinguished School for the past few years, and we were building up to a one-to-one iPad program – COVID-19 has helped us achieve this aim as it forced us to transform how we teach students remotely. Prior to the pandemic I was using the Google Suite of apps to create and deliver assignments to students, and it proved handy during the weeks where we were expected to provide lessons for students at home and at school.

“Our school would usually run a ‘tour of learning’ showcasing student work to parents. In past years, I have assisted my students to perform a science enquiry and invited scientists to critique their work and provide feedback. This has been highly valuable in the past and the looks on the faces of the students when they receive feedback from experts is magic. Unfortunately, it was not possible to hold this function due to the pandemic rules. Our school went virtual instead, and the work was made visible through a website accessible to parents only.”