Getting all atwitter about science

By Victoria Metcalf 17/10/2014

Image source: Wikimedia Commons uploaded by The Pink Group

Recently the Minister of Education , Hon Hekia Parata, suggested introducing new assessments for Years 9 and 10 at school. The tone of the conversations on education in general I have been having in recent months with teachers leads me to think that new assessments are not exactly what teachers desire.

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself John Dewey

A science teaching revolution

You see there is an exciting revolution happening in New Zealand education at the grass roots level. It’s all taking place completely in public via social media. And as a participant I can see that we have some fabulous, committed teachers/educators across the nation striving to offer the very best education to our children and pushing the boundaries of their own teaching practice.

On Tuesdays every fortnight there’s a chat on Twitter from 2030-2130 under the hashtag #scichatnz. The last one took place this Tuesday, so the next one is Tuesday 28th October. It’s rapid fire, it’s exciting and overwhelming all at once and if you attempt to participate, then use of the Twitter platform Tweetdeck with multiple columns is a must.

It’s a bunch of mainly secondary school teachers, some primary teachers and the occasional science academic such as myself having a Twitter chat. This takes place for an hour on a topic about science teaching of options put out by by @SciChatNZ and chosen by participants through counting of the votes in the week leading up to the chat event. A moderator, such as #scichatnz founder Rachel aka @ibpossum or Matty Nicoll aka @MattyNicoll  puts out a series of approximately eight questions on the topic during the hour under #scichatnzquestion.

And then we all go to it answering the questions, reading others’ replies and expanding the chat from there. It can get heated. We’ve had an academic from overseas pipe in questioning our definition of science in New Zealand and then claiming they had grave fears for science teaching here. Ouch! I on the other hand don’t have any grave fears- there’s an implicit understanding from tertiary down to primary level about what science and indeed what modern science is- after all we’re all using social media tools to talk to one another.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by bdesham with Inkscape.

What arises from the chats

A consistent theme arising from the conversations has been on the nature of science (NoS) and how important it is to foster understanding NoS first and indeed right through schooling, rather than an early focus on science content per se. What is science, how does it work? This is pretty important indeed to generating the more scientifically literate society we need.

Content can overwhelm and take the creativity and passion out of engaging with science at school level. In these chats we are committed to finding ways to maintain that love of inquiry right through school by looking at ways to use the student’s own interests, using interactive technologies, building a sense of community and by making it real world relevant and exciting.

The constraints around the existing assessments make this challenging for teachers but the infectious sharing of their ideas and enthusiasm amongst each other across the country is fascinating to watch. As a lecturer I am learning a lot about teaching practice and theory- it’s a funny thing indeed that many of our tertiary students are unaware of-lecturers in general receive no training in how to teach. I have a much better understanding too of what is taught at school and the New Zealand Curriculum. The teachers value too having a tertiary perspective of what children need to know.

Forming scientist and teacher collaborations

The science teachers I have met on #scichatnz are absolutely crying out to engage with real scientists such as myself to improve their student experiences and teaching. There’s a perception out there however, that the couple of scientists who tend to get utilised by the media are all that is on offer for them. There’s been a sense of despair they can’t connect more.

Scientists who are keen and able to engage with schools need to make themselves known. I hear from teachers that they don’t know how to locate such scientists. We need a national database of scientists who are passionate about science communication, including heading into the classroom, to help facilitate this. Tweet Your Science started by Kimberly Collins (aka @kimi_collins)with its database of tweeting scientists is a great first start in the meantime to help foster collaborations.

I already interact with schools and love the opportunity to do so- it’s very rewarding for students, teacher and scientist. As a result of my time on #scichatnz I’ve already had one Skype date with a classroom in Auckland where there were fascinating questions put forth by the students. And I recently spoke about a collaboration with a school class in Christchurch at NZ Icefest 2014. It was quite incredible to hear teacher Briar Schwalger-Smith discuss the impact this collaborative venture had on her class.

Such collaborations help to build teacher confidence, bring real science and real world context into the classroom and can be extremely valuable at debunking stereotypical perceptions of scientists that students may have. For female students especially, encountering a woman scientist is a powerful role model.

Internationally, there are some amazing collaborative initiatives, especially for those who enjoy the cold. Both PolarTrec (US) and Polar Educators International (worldwide) link polar scientists with educators.The educators may get to be part of a science team in the field. Sadly the PolarTrec initiative may no longer be funded by the National Science Foundation in the future.

There’s a chat for everyone

If #scichatnz isn’t your thing there are plenty of other New Zealand education chats that take place over Twitter. Some of these are on different nights- for example there is #edchatnz on fortnightly Thursdays discussing general education practice. There is also #mathchatnz, #engchatnz and most fabulously #ptchatnz ((the link contains some simple explanations of Twitter use). #ptchatnz is a chat where parents, teachers and the community can interact and chat. What a fantastic initiative, for social media savvy parents.

And internationally there is ex-pat Kiwi Craig Kemp’s #whatisschool chat plus plenty of other education chats in other countries.

Next week I am heading to Wellington to a workshop as part of the government lead Science and Society Project: A Nation of Curious Minds  to discuss connecting scientists and educators more effectively. Thanks to this #scichatnz bottom-up initiative from teachers I have a much better understanding of what shape such connections could take. And there are plenty of ideas garnered from our inspiring chats that I will be able to speak about. My own curious mind is looking forward to seeing what unfolds next week.

If you have suggestions of how to better connect scientists and educators please comment below. I’d love to hear them.

In the meantime I feel confident there are some motivated, switched on and nurturing science teachers in charge of many of our children, doing their bit to create a more scientifically literate and science loving society.

For scientists (or teachers) who have not yet got comfortable with social media and especially Twitter use- here is a resource I have created of why you should be on Twitter.