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Spaceward Bound Mojave 2008, Australia 2009, Namibia 2010, Australia 2011
After 18 years in science classrooms (11 of those in coordinator roles) developing exciting programs, investigations, projects, excursions, camps and more recently Student Spaceward Bounds (and teaching of course), I decided to take 12 months away from school to pursue a dream; no, not as an astronaut for an upcoming space mission (not yet), but to commence a PhD.
Many years of involvement with Mars Society Australia (http://www.marssociety.org.au/), having opportunities to be involved with 3 previous NASA Spaceward Bound expeditions, and being the Education Lead for the event in South Australia in 2009 have together rejuvenated my excitement for science and permitted me time to develop skills in field training and then pass these onto my students (also known as my mini-Martians!)
It has been professionally very stimulating to take this newly acquired knowledge and develop activities to get students to plan experiments and test equipment that raises their space science awareness using new courses. Within a new Year 10 elective called "Space Science" that has students model building, designing and constructing remote rovers and robots, launching rockets, growing plants using hydroponics, using astro-photography and testing space suits. I instigated a Student Spaceward Bound. Students conducted research, collected samples, attended a few on-site field lectures, examined and used technical scientific equipment, visited areas of historical and current space science relevance, provided ongoing results (including data gathered from a 500 km transect line across central Western Australia - they really loved me for that), wrote papers and presented findings. Apart from the immense amount of time to coordinate an event such as this, it was very enlightening to see how the students responded. It was great to see how much they really got out of it, even those that traditionally find science not exactly their main field of expertise.
This drew me to complete Post-graduate research in assessing, measuring and evaluating student understanding in science education, which has provided a solid framework for the research that I am doing now. My thesis is looking at, "The effectiveness of specialist Earth and Space Science programs on changing students' attitudes and motivation and teachers’ confidence and self-efficacy with classroom practice and content."
After the many years of seeing students' interests and attitudes change, I thought it was about time that I put my money where my mouth is and investigate any connections that can be made. As such I became involved with the Science Education Enrichment project (http://www.seeproject.org.au/) at the Gravity Discovery Centre in Gingin, Western Australia, which is investigating a range of science enrichment activities that supports and complements formal science education in schools. This project is examining impacts of science enrichment programs on students as well as my personal interest, the teachers.
Areas that are being provided for enrichment involve Astronomy research where students will be utilising a variety of telescopes remotely to detect, identify and track asteroids and hopefully find a few new ones. This includes developing techniques to use state-of-the-art research telescopes to make new discoveries and contribute to ongoing scientific research and for students to form a part of a research group to liaise with leading astronomers. This project provides the basis for authentic astronomical research. In addition a new education package examining Astrobiology is under development, where students are using their analysis skills in the field and remotely to look at where life could exist.
Integral to this research is examining the influence of specialist science professional learning on teachers, which is where a strong link to the NASA Spaceward Bound project comes in. With participants attending Spaceward Bound at various sites, I am investigating what immediate and long-term impacts this exciting field experience has on them and their classes. I know from experience that it is exciting and provides much depth for students, so now it's time to quantify some of this.
As the Education Lead for Spaceward Bound Australia 2011, I intend to coordinate the teacher delegates, including daily reports, linking the science and engineering objectives to resources and activities for classrooms, and generating and disseminating of these materials post-expedition. Included in these resources is planning for interviews with scientists and engineers specifically about their research and links with the Pilbara as a part of ongoing outreach and curriculum support materials for teachers and schools. I will also be interviewing the expedition teachers for ongoing research on the effectiveness of specialist science enrichment activities.
I believe that it is crucial to provide a spark of excitement to students. Providing students opportunities that permit them to follow their passions and give them a sense of ownership to their learning generates incredible outputs. Beyond the high-quality research, these students get a chance to experience a taste of project work and the careers that this can lead to, hopefully proving that the world (and beyond) is available to them. We don’t know all the answers, go out and explore it for yourself, it’s an exciting universe, and there is a lot out there!
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