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Science in New Zealand contexts: perspectives of teachers and students

Osborne and Collins’s (2001) study examining student perceptions of science found that students were interested in learning science when the topic had relevance to them. School science is engaging when it makes connections to students’ everyday lives and when they have an opportunity to experience physical phenomena first-hand – the opportunity to engage in apparent autonomous discovery (Solomon, 1980).

The research

Making science relevant
Students were interested in learning science when the topic had relevance to them.

This project was undertaken over one term to investigate how teachers at different levels of schooling adapted and used Science Learning Hub (SLH) resources for their science teaching. The project involved six teachers from four schools comprising year levels 3 to 10. Two teachers were specialist science teachers. Data was collected through videotapes, audiotapes, observations, field notes, interviews, student work and teaching materials.

In this research brief, we present the perspectives of two year 7 and 8 teachers, a year 5 and 6 teacher and their students when using the SLH with New Zealand contexts.

Findings

Cath’s year 7 and 8 class: Using our environment helps us relate and learn more about ourselves

Cath and her students had just been on school camp to Port Waikato, where they learned about the rocky shore. Cath wanted to build on this experience by introducing food webs. Cath used the Build a marine food web activity with her year 7 and 8 students. In this activity, the students built their own food web using images of organisms from the marine ecosystem. Cath then adapted the activity by providing another context – the school grounds. Students identified an ecosystem within the school grounds, such as grass or trees, and took photographs of producers, consumers and decomposers. This again provided a familiar context, which students also encounter in their backyards, helping them to apply their knowledge and further their understanding.

Cath said that the New Zealand context helped with students’ learning. “Most of it has been based around New Zealand. They can relate to it. When they looked at that beach [Port Waikato], they honed in to places that they’d been. They can actually relate to it.”

Cath’s students confirmed her view of the value of the New Zealand context. Angela (12 years) said, “I think it’s more interesting around New Zealand because it’s where you come from and you get a lot more background information.” Ann (11 years) said, “I guess it’s a bit more interesting because it’s where you live, you kind of find out more about where you live in the environment.” Penny (11 years) added, “I think with this we learned more, which means we might be able to get involved more.”

Gail’s year 7 and 8 class: Examining a common species is interesting and surprising

Gail used the Observing earthworms activity with the aim of developing students’ observation skills. She chose earthworms for an observation activity as they were readily available and her students had some prior knowledge of them. She commented, “They could relate. Like a lot of them had knowledge about worm farms or around their garden. There was something lovely about the fact the ‘these ones are really small’ and the only way they knew that was because they’ve seen other worms. So that was quite nice and an unexpected benefit of using earthworms.” Gail added that using real earthworms was a highlight for her students: “I was surprised by how captivated the students were by having a living thing in front of them. It was good to have a common thing to look at. The engagement of students was a highlight. It built a nice platform for future lessons.”

Student comments confirmed Gail’s ideas about the use of a common species. Luka (12 years) said, “…playing with worms and looking through magnifying glasses just might sound boring, but it’s actually really fun, because when you look up close, they look very different”. Samara (12 years) added that the highlight of the lesson had been “…looking at the worms through the magnifying glass and seeing how they moved because I thought that was really cool”.

Mila’s year 5 and 6 class: Examining an endangered species develops empathy

Mila’s science unit was on the New Zealand longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii). She wanted her students to develop an understanding of the eels and their endangered status before going on camp. Mila adapted the Bird hotel activity to the ‘Eel hotel’ to help her students learn about the life cycle and threats to the eel.

Mila showed her class a broadcast on TV comparing endangered eels with endangered kiwi and noted, “That was the hook for me, and after that, I had full engagement. My kids were fascinated that the kiwi is native and we protect it but the eels are also native. They’ve been around for 80 million years and are just as endangered and they are still being fished.” The students’ fascination led to them undertaking individual research at home. “I have James in my class. He went home and brought back a page from the SLH – the life cycle of the eel. I hadn’t bought this [life cycle] up yet, and he could talk to it.” Mila placed James’s page on the wall display so all the class could see it.

Mila had used elephants as a topic of study the previous year and found “there’s just as much engagement and passion from the children [with eels]”. She further commented on student thinking once they knew about the eels and the threats to their life cycle: “Their knowledge has already changed because I told them, next week, we’re going to be creating our own flax nets to catch eels, and the children said, ‘But we are going to release them aren’t we?’ That’s a neat thing [to be concerned about capturing live eels].” In contrast, she compared this empathetic view to her last year’s students who had not studied the longfin eel before going to camp. “When they went on camp, they had no understanding of their endangered position and just wanted to catch them with no thought about what they were going to be doing with them after they had caught them.”

Mila’s students commented on the benefits of learning the science of a New Zealand species. Emily (10 years) commented, “It’s pretty cool because it’s native to us and something we need to protect and something that we should learn about and we should know. We should know about our history and what it was like back in the Māori days. We should know about our special creatures.” Johanna (9 years) concurred: “Definitely, it seems more interesting because I like being outdoors, and it’s really cool to know something more about our culture.” Katie (10 years) talked about the importance of accessibility and first-hand experience: “…and we can interact with things. If it was in another country, we wouldn’t be able to see it.”

Student drawings confirmed their understandings of the life cycle of the eel.

Concluding comment

Teacher and student comments indicate that the students were highly engaged with science when the topic had relevance to them and connections were made to their everyday lives.

Student engagement in science was fostered through the use of a native species (longfin eel), a familiar species (earthworms) and local habitat (school grounds):

  • The use of the New Zealand longfin eel and finding out new and interesting information (endangered, long lived and one life cycle) promoted student learning. Students were strongly engaged with the topic, even spending time at home researching. Empathetic views were also developed and enhanced.
  • Students benefited from their hands-on experience with the earthworm. An ordinary, everyday living thing was ‘made new’ by observing it through a magnifying glass. The familiar became unfamiliar and surprising.
  • Learning about New Zealand habitats was important to the students. They understood that, by doing science in a local context, there was a real chance they could become personally involved. Undertaking science work in their local environment confirmed for students that science is all around them.

References

Osborne, J. & Collins, S. (2001). Pupils’ views of the role and value of the science curriculum: A focus group study. International Journal of Science Education, 23(5), 441–467.

Solomon, J. (1980). Teaching children in the laboratory. Crook Helm: London.

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