Podcast with Australian Teacher Magazine – ACER

Podcast Special: Science – student engagement, teaching excellence and outside expertise

A podcast with Brett McKay from Kirrawee High and myself covering contemporary science K-12.


The Butterfly Garden – Six months on with butterflies!

Last year, and as outlined in a previous post my stage two class set out on a six month project to establish a butterfly garden with monarch butterflies being one of the main species that we wanted to attract and sustain.

So last week it was truly satisfying to see a couple of monarch butterflies in the garden. Along with some of the students that participated in the PBL project we carefully examined the milkweed plants which act as a host for egg laying and monarch caterpillars. Sure enough not only did we find quite a few eggs on the tips but also fifteen or so caterpillars in varying stages of maturity.

The kids were totally over the moon with the evidence of success and at seeing a natural life cycle occurring in the habitat that they had helped create.

We are looking forward to monitoring the health of the garden and the number of monarch butterflies that mature. The garden is also proving popular with my classes for nature sketching and quite time.

Cubes in Space – Student Space Experiments

Enabling authentic science or learning in any subject area is a real passion of mine. I want my students, and those in other classes to partake in learning that has true meaning and purpose whenever possible. Authentic learning hooks students (and adults for that matter) because it is REAL and students rightly believe that what they are doing has both real purpose and validity. You don’t find it in worksheets, most textbooks or in any one size fits all form of teaching with a teacher blah, blah blahing at the front of the room.



Space science and project based learning have provided my students with fun, exciting and purposeful opportunities, and one that two groups of Mt Ousley students have participated in in 2014 and 2015 is the Cubes in Space (CiS) program.

CiS offers students across the globe an opportunity to send an investigation into space from NASA Langley Virginia on a sounding rocket. Yes… launch your idea… on a rocket with the help of NASA – very cool!

Here is the video of our 2014 launch.

Cool but challenging. The selected investigation had to be contained in a plastic cube container measuring approximately 40mmx 40mm x 40mm and weighing 30 grams or so.


Last year my first group of students submitted an idea to test the effects of magnetism in a micro-g environment. It is important to remember this is the students investigation and their research, as the teacher I’ve helped with materials and roughing out ideas but I don’t discuss their hypothesis or any misconception – that would take the fun out of it! The students covered one side of the magnet with iron filings and the other side with iron filing covered in chalk dust. The idea being to see if there was any movement of the filings due to reduced magnetism in space.

So what happened? Well the school bought in to the idea and many families sat up late to watch the live launch of the Terrier rocket – exciting in its own right! The local paper got on board and shared the students’ journey. A month later the payload returned and it was opened and yes there was chalk dust everywhere – something had happened to move the dust but what? The students then realised the potential flaw as the dust could have spread during the flight over, during the shake test, during micro-g? or on return. So with a smile of the unsure, the results were inconclusive.

This year another group of students chose to submit the same investigation, this time using rusted filings on one side and normal on the other. The idea being the rust would hold and a better indication of movement would be measured. Again the school bought in, the launch was watched, and the payload was launched and recovered.

A month later the payload returned to our school and again the iron rust had spread throughout the case covering not only the filings but also everything else! Again, no result that could confirm or deny the students’ beliefs. That’s the great thing about science, you have to keep failing forward and I look optimistically to next year when our third group of students will have their opportunity to get hands-on and launch their idea.

Important CiS is accepting applications from October 12 from schools across the globe for 2016 sounding rocket and weather balloon launch opportunities.

So get your kids together and enjoy the challenges and rewards of authentic space science through the Cubes in Space program.

Project Based Learning PBL – Sprucing up the classroom doors!

This is a follow up project based learning experience to “Operation Sandbox’ completed earlier in the year and detailed in a previous blog. The focus on this activity was on mastering aspects of area while sandbox dived deeply into volume. The feedback from most (but not all) students on ‘Operation Sandbox’ was that they really enjoyed the exploration, creative learning and real life aspects of the project. It was challenging, and of course many aspects of the maths content will be revisited for consolidation and extension during future maths lessons.

Mt Ousley PS staff are focusing on improving the learning spaces in the school. It’s a standard 1960 building with corridors, square rooms, and some areas that are under utilised for learning. Teachers have been allocated a generous budget to partially refurbish their rooms with flexible seating, storage and display furnishings – exciting times!

As classes increasingly focus on differentiated learning and small group learning, we are seeing students working on the floor, in corridors, bagrooms, our blue room recording studio and outside. Being 1:1 laptop also encourages student self-paced, anytime anywhere learning. A makerspace is being developed, new playground equipment has been installed and students are also designing a new outdoor learning area.

As our class collaborated and discussed items that would benefit our learning space the idea of painting the three dull green doors was raised; a perfect opportunity to engage the students in authentic learning via maths and the topic of area. I allowed the class to work in groups of 2-4 and set the task.

‘How much paint will we need to buy from the hardware store to adequately paint the three doors?

That was my set up question that would lead to other questions such as –

What units of measurement will use?

How will we physically measure aspects of the door?

How many coats does each door need?

What colour does the class agree on?

With a stage two class I had a small number of students who could confidently attack the problem and the majority who required some scaffolding and support, mainly through encouragment and providing confirmation that they were on the right track with strategies and equipment.

Over a week we had three practical sessions exploring the measurement tool used; metre ruler, class ruler or tape measure. Students practised taking accurate measurements in metres or centimetres. Students in their groups then used known area strategies, Googled ‘area’ calculations or came to me for tutorials on area.

We had a check in and found that some groups had the correct answer, while two that had only allowed for one coat of paint and forget to double their answer. The tutorial group had worked through the solution with my assistance.

The class then jumped onto the Dulux paint website and looked at enamel colours before reading the paint specifics from a hardware website to see what size tin was required. This was a great lesson in art and primary/secondary colours as we talked about the emotions of colour and how they impact a learning space. A lengthy discussion was had until we selected on a bright yellow to counter our turquoise green carpet and walls.

Ideally I would have had the students paint the doors, however  being enamel paint with strong fumes I decided against this. I did however have a few students give the doors a very light sand to get an idea of the preparation required. So with a one litre tin of bold yellow I’ve spent a couple of afternoons brightening up the room!  PBL

Photo 1 27So to me, PBL is a fun way of making learning authentic, engaging and challenging in a supportive and friendly manner. While backward mapping and careful programming are the keys to ensuring a cohesive delivery of the maths syllabus scope.


Project Based Learning PBL – Operation Sandbox; a primary school case study

‘Make the call,’ the stage 2 class chanted during the final part of our project as students rang a supplier to order and pay for a truckload of sand to refill the sand box. 

Project Based Learning, Challenge Based Learning, Purpose Based learning; call it what you will. The key is that it challenges both teacher and student to get out of their comfort zone (read boring for all, teach to the middle, not differentiated, textbooks etc.) and develop understandings through collaborative, authentic and real world challenges.

As we move to greater inquiry driven, differentiated and student centred learning opportunities, PBL through inquiry is a key enabler for success.

This term I set a PBL task a little different to my normal key learning area inquiry units and had students investigate, research and complete the task of refilling the school sandbox. Operation Sandbox was born as one student enthusiastically termed it!

With an empty sandbox that Kinder would like to use but couldn’t I had the ideal real world project with a meaningful outcome for the students to work on. Of course I could have asked the school office to ring up, order the sand and have it delivered but that would remove any opportunity for the students to make a meaningful contribution and engage in what turned out to be rewarding and insightful learning experience for all.

The Youtube video showcases the project and I’ll outline the key stages and make some observations.

I had the class form their own teams of 3-5 and took them to the sandbox, an empty box of around two metres by two metres and 45cm deep (of course they did not know this at the time, that was the challenge!). I then made it clear that the learning intention over the next three weeks was that our class, 3/4B had to calculate and order the correct amount of sand and have it delivered.

I then stepped back and had the groups go to work, they talked, debated and set about deciding what they had to do and what equipment they might use. Some students had a concept of area and that it was based on two sides, others knew that the words volume and capacity were involved. Initially none knew the formula to find the required volume.

After the first session each group shared their initial thoughts – use metre rulers, use 30cm class rulers, tape measures, 1000s blocks and one and two litre water containers. It was a real mix of strategies and ideas, and just what I hope to see, a cross pollination of ideas with some ideas stronger and more complete than others. Yet none were weak and all had real merit, even if they were not all practical as we would find out!

Over the next two weeks we had practical sessions and theory sessions. The practical sessions involved measuring, stacking 1000s blocks, running frantically with litre jugs of water. There was excitement, frustration, reflection and ‘gotcha’ or ‘uh ha’ moments when things stuck and concepts and skills were mastered.

Students discovered that volume and capacity are different, that finding the area only gets you so far, that measuring and re-measuring were important for accuracy (this was maths after all!). They went online to find local sand suppliers, asked me for the school credit card and looked at calendars and timetables to see the best times for delivery.

In the last week, three of the five groups achieved a volume calculation for the correct amount of sand, these were the groups using rulers and tape measures. I gave some clarification on the formula of length, width and depth but only when the students had forward the base idea. The group using 1000s blocks achieved area, but stalled at making two layers or doubling their base layer. The water group were wonderful to work with and are well represented in the video; their misconceptions and insights as they worked on the project are a delight to see. They chose water as they saw sand as a liquid, flowing if you like. Their thinking was interesting and they maintained a sense of humour even when things did not pan out as they had predicted. In this sense, their resilience was heartening to see. PBL challenges resilience and mindset.

So yes, eventually we made the call and two students used the credit card to order the sand and have it delivered. Kindergarten were and are happy, though just last week I saw that the sand is already thinning and much is on the ground where the children have built little castles and the like. So soon the opportunity will repeat itself and another class will take its turn. I’m already on the lookout for rooms needing painting, floors needing covering, gardens needing soil and so on. And that’s without looking beyond the school fence to where strong community and local connections can be made and successes celebrated.

PBL requires teamwork, commitment, reflection, a sense of humour and real effort; all things that we need to nurture and encourage in our students. Importantly it can be fun and makes teaching all the more enjoyable for the teacher and learning all the more enjoyable for students when adequate time and support are provided.

Project Based Learning – TeachWild Marine Debris Project


I recently spent a week with fellow teachers, educators and scientists on North Stradbroke Island as a part of the Teachwild Marine Debris Project managed by the CSIRO and Earthwatch.

debris survey

debris survey

Our school has a real focus on making connections and project based learning –  we want our students actively engaged with their studies and learning that has a purpose. TeachWild, through the monitoring of marine debris encourages students to contribute data on a national level while taking on an environmental stewardship role locally.

As a part of the project I wrote a daily blog that details the learning and how students benefit.



I also made a video showcasing the week