Staff spotlight: Authentic and engaging learning

staff spot 

Science education lecturer Dr Mellita Jones is committed to enhancing student experience through her work in the Faculty of Education and Arts. Mellita is passionate about the two programs she works in to achieve authentic and engaging learning: 1) a school-based approach to science teacher education; and 2) a faculty-wide teaching practicum experience in the Solomon Islands.

In discussing the school-based approach to science teacher education, Mellita explained the impetus of the approach was to address the “fear” of science among most of the under-graduate primary students she works with.

“These students usually drop science in high school so are nervous about teaching this subject. I address this by making science relevant, and by reminding them that kids actually love it,” she said.

The placement in schools that is embedded into her fourth year science education unit sees students planning, implementing and reflecting on a unit of science in the classrooms of local, participating schools.

“It is transformational for them. All of a sudden they see how engaging science can be for children, and they realise that with support, they can produce and deliver effective and engaging science learning experiences. It really builds their confidence as teachers of science”.

In a similar vein, the practicum placement in the Solomon Islands also provides authentic learning experiences that help build pre-service teachers’ identity as capable and effective teachers. In this program a group of pre-service teachers, selected from any of ACU’s campuses through an application process, complete a four-week teaching practicum at a Catholic school in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

The Science & Technology Education lecturer from School of Education in Ballarat, said the Solomon Islands project is growing steadily and reflects ACU’s Mission of community engagement. The project started with six students, grew to 10, will involve 12 students this year, and aims to take 20 students in 2016.

“We all live together in very basic conditions. Solomon Islands are in the bottom 25 per cent of the poorest countries in the world,” Mellita said.

“So it is valuable experience for students who get to see a bigger world view. It helps them understand a range of important ideas as teachers and as global citizens including: experience with different cultures; teaching and planning for English as Additional Language or Dialect (EALD) learners; and social justice and equity issues that the Solomon Islands communities face.

"They also teach in classrooms with little to no learning resources, so they have to be very creative to achieve the student-centered learning they need to demonstrate.  Overall, these experiences help them grow as people and as teachers when they come back to Australia.”

The experience has a similar effect on staff members involved.  Two academic staff members accompany the pre-service teachers on the trip. Mellita has been one of those involved for five of the past six years.

“The experience has been transformational for me. It has really driven home to me the level of opportunity and privilege I have in my life, and it has made me very aware of the gross inequities in the world. I have become a much better “global” citizen as a result, and I appreciate the importance of relationships for happiness, something I think that the Solomon Islanders could teach many western-based societies about.”

Mellita said one of the ways to help primary teaching students learn effectively is to make learning authentic and relevant. She hopes that this is what she achieves in the two programs described here.

In reference to science, the Australian government has recently said the nation’s future would rely heavily on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and teachers need more support to encourage students to get involved. According to Australia's chief scientist Ian Chubb, Year 12 participation rates in science subjects as well as top level mathematics are at a 20-year low.

Mellita said one of the ways to further help primary teaching students overcome their fear of science was to promote the nexus between theory and practice. One example involved teaching about interactive learning, an approach that supports science inquiry learning.

Mellita asks teaching students to draw a spider as accurately as possible from their memory. “This helps me and the students identify what knowledge they already have (or think they have). Then I provide a range of spider specimens that students examine with a magnifying glass. Students compare the features they observe to their original drawing. Stimulus questions help to provide focus on key learning intentions.”

The students are then asked to redraw the spider adding the real-life information before the interactive learning theory is introduced and used to analyse the activity. 

“This helps them to see the theoretical underpinnings of the strategy in action. When they analyse the activity, they are building their knowledge through connection to their shared experience. I don’t tell them what it looks like – I model it, then they tell me how it exemplifies the strategy. Teaching is not just telling, especially in science. To be authentic, it has to be an inquiry approach.”

The types of learning experiences Mellita provides in teacher education have led to a government award for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning. “Hopefully it is adding to the overall student experience at ACU, and helping to produce more effective and confident teachers”.

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