By Victoria Metcalf 05/02/2016

Science engagement is currently a hot socio-political issue with extensive Government investment and interest. But it is not a new issue, and there is a lot that has been done in the past that we should be learning from and building on.

A guest post by Dr Cathy Buntting, Senior Research Fellow, University Waikato. This is an educator’s perspective on the science engagement workshop. Part 2 will be a scientist’s perspective.

On 15 December 2015, the University of Waikato hosted a symposium in Wellington. Invited speaker Professor Jonathan Osborne from Stanford University was asked to help delegates think about science education, communication and engagement from a systems perspective.

The symposium was attended by representatives from MBIE; Ministry of Education; DoC; Victoria, Massey and Waikato Universities; New Zealand Council for Educational Research; RSNZ; and Lift Education (publishers of the Ministry of Education’s Connected series for literacy in science, technology and mathematics).

Opening the discussion, Jonathan Osborne drew attention to work done for the UK’s Wellcome Trust, in which a large number of organisations involved in science education/communication/engagement were analysed from the perspective of an ecological system.

Some of the questions the research explored were:

  • Do providers within the system share common goals?
  • Are they contributing synergistically to achieving these goals?
  • Are the relationships between and among providers reciprocal and supportive?
  • What are the ‘keystone species’ – groups that have a greater impact on the whole than others?
  • Is the system resilient, robust and coherent?

Jonathan also made the following key points:

  • Situational interest triggered by an event needs to be nurtured if it is to be maintained
  • Engagement does not always lead to acceptance or support – critical engagement is important
  • Educating to inform differs from educating to take action.
The whiteboard capture of ideas from the workshop. Credit: Cathy Buntting
The whiteboard capture of ideas from the workshop. Credit: Cathy Buntting

So, where does this leave science engagement initiatives in New Zealand?

A plethora of activities, organisations and resources exist across both formal (school and tertiary study) and informal contexts, funded by a wide range of sources. With this in mind, the afternoon’s discussion centred on the need to ‘join the dots’ and develop a ‘learning system’ focused on:

  • maximising synergies between and across initiatives
  • using past and new learnings to inform the development of current and future initiatives
  • promoting long-term and sustained engagement of participants as lifelong learners with an interest in science and science-related issues
  • supporting initiatives to identify their goals and evaluate their impact, both individually and as a larger system.

A similar challenge was issued around the national co-ordination of teacher professional learning and development (PLD), NZCER having recently carried out a small teacher survey that highlighted the diverse experiences teachers have of science-related PLD.

The current socio-political focus (and Government spending) on science engagement in New Zealand means that deeper consideration of how to co-ordinate a more effective, nation-wide learning system is not only opportune, but essential.

Further stimulus for thinking can be found in the following articles:

*Blog editor note: Part 2 to follow will be my (Victoria Metcalf) perspective of the workshop as a scientist.


0 Responses to “A learning system for science engagement: Part 1”

  • There is so much talk about engagement, but little investment actually in schools to help teachers make a difference in the classroom.
    I believe we have programme that is working at Cashmere to increase student engagement with science … see the web link and article for more detail.
    It can be done, with enthusiastic teachers taking a NOS approach.

    • David, thanks for contributing to this conversation! I was delighted to see Cashmere’s success with the global sustainability prize being celebrated ( – totally awesome. And I know that you and your team are delivering some very creative programmes!! Please can you re-post the weblink so that others can access it?
      You’re so right … funding directly to schools is very limited (and highly competitive) and so much can be done with enthusiastic teachers taking a NOS approach. A more system-wide approach to science PD is a topic worthy of discussion!!! Thanks again for connecting!!!

    • Love to hear more about it sometime David- I’m based in Christchurch so if you have free time for a coffee sometime let me know- Vic Metcalf