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Professor Leonie Rennie

Leonie Rennie is an Emeritus Professor in Science and Technology Education at Curtin University in Western Australia.  After studying geology, Leonie has gone on to a long and distinguished career where she has worked in, and researched, science education resulting in her publishing over 200 refereed journal articles, served on the boards of countless science education initiatives and has had key roles in many national programmes relating to science awareness in communities.  In 2009 she was awarded the Distinguished Contributions to Science Education Through Research Award in the US.

I was always interested in getting the kids to understand why science was useful.

On earliest memories of science

I can’t remember how long ago it was I started to be interested in science actually!  I was trying to think about that and I can only remember always being interested in everything!  And possibly it’s because when I was six we moved to a little country town by the ocean, so I had a lot of bush, and a lot of ocean, to play in when I was a kid.  And I explored, I think, you know.  I had a small business collecting hermit crabs from the ocean by duck diving and selling them to fisherman for three pence each!  So I just became interested in science and everything to do with science.

My dad was a fisherman and then he was really a bit of jack-of-all-trades, he worked in copper mines.  I went to high school in Albany, which is a fair way from the little town I grew up in, and I just loved science.  And so I came to university, did science, did a degree in geology actually, and that remains my underlying passion, but in those days it was very hard to get a job, particular a field job as a female, in geology - it’s not nearly as difficult now - and so I went to teaching and became a science teacher and from there into university life and then a science educator.  So I’ve worked across Australia, really, and internationally, in science education.

On the progression of science education

When I first started science teaching, which was a long time ago, I was always interested in getting the kids to understand why science was useful and not just something you learned in school and then forgot about when you left the school room, and I think one of the things that’s changed and become more pervasive, I guess, in science education is that need to make science that happens in the school room a science that kids can relate to the things that go on in their outside life.  And one of the major threads I’ve had in my research is looking at integrated curriculum with science particularly, usually integrated with maths and technology but sometimes with social studies, sometimes with English.  And with two colleagues, John Wallace and Grady Venville, we’ve worked for probably over 15 years looking at integrated curriculum, both in Australia and in Canada which is where John is now located, and the importance of that I think is that it provides the opportunity to give kids what we termed as a world perspective, if you like, in curriculum.  And we based that on two factors.  One was balance and one was connection.

The first one, in terms of balance, we think that kids, to learn science, need a balance of the key science disciplines, plus mathematics and technology, and with that more of the integrated science which is like environmental science, which isn’t just either geology or physics or chemistry but it’s a mix of everything.  In fact, you know, the bottom of everything, of all the science we do, it’s either environmental or it’s related to health.  And with that kind of balance, the hard disciplines if you like, and the integrated disciplines on the other hand, I think there’s much more opportunity to see science in the world outside rather than science broken up into when we do our period or chemistry or our period of physics or whatever in school.

And the other one was connection.  We think that if you want kids to understand the big problems of the world, big problems…so one of the big problems of the world at the moment is the Ebola virus, um, climate_change is the other big one, most kids will have heard of that one, and by working with and in the community, within their local community, I think kids can get a feeling for what’s happening out there.  And that will give them the background to enable them to scale up, if you like, to what’s happening globally. 

So it’s that balance of what they learn and how they learn it and then the ability to connect what they learn, starting with the local and then moving up to more of a global perspective. 

On teaching integrated science

We’ve done a number of case studies in various schools in Perth and in Canada, and one of the ones that I think really demonstrated that was one where we had a primary school who were working on the health of their local lake, or local wetlands, and they looked at that wetlands in English and in Geography and in Science and in Mathematics at their school.  These were kids aged about 11-12.  They had visits from various community groups, they went out, they measured the lake, they looked at the effect of housing, of sewage, of the lake as a leisure centre, and they really got to understand how that lake functioned.  And that, we thought, gave them a sense of what we described as ‘powerful knowledge’ because they could actually…they knew enough to be able to take action on a personal level and that’s a really powerful thing to be able to give kids.  That they can feel that they can take action and they can make a difference at their level, in their community. 

On tackling the reduction in science funding in Australia

I think the reduced science funding, particularly as it impacts on schools, is associated with getting sufficient science and maths trained teachers, particularly into high schools.  In Australia there are a lot of teachers who are teaching out of field, we say.  So it’s the Phys Ed teacher who comes in and takes the science, or the social studies teacher comes and takes the maths because they’re short of science and maths teachers.  And Australia, as you well know, is a very large country, most of the people live at the edge, and so schools that live on the inside are usually quite isolated and it’s quite difficult to get good staff and keep good staff there at the schools.

I think what reduced funding means is the lack of being able to train enough teachers so that you’ve got a good student to teacher ratio and to give teachers the facilities and flexibility that they can actually get kids out into the community.  Because that’s tricky.  You’ve got the responsibility for kids, in terms of looking after them, making sure they’re safe, and then there’s the cost of getting them out.  You’ve got to hire a bus to take them out of the school grounds and so on and so forth.  So at school level, it’s kind of smallish things like that. It’s just the facilities and the flexibility that teachers have within the schools.

In the bigger picture it’s actually quite sad that funding for science is being curtailed; in fact, funding for research across the science and health fields is being curtailed with budget cuts and so on.  And what that means is a lot of our scientists are in contract positions and they have to spend a good deal of their time applying for funding instead of getting on with doing their science.

On scientists and mathematicians in Schools

One of the good things that I’ve been able to do is look at a programme, a national programme, that comes out of the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO as it gets called acronymically, if there’s such a word, and that’s called Scientists in Schools, now Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools. About 15% of them are in fact maths people, and these are scientists and mathematicians who work either at universities or in research organisations, and they partner either with a particular teacher but sometimes with a school, and those scientists and mathematicians go and visit the school or the kids go and visit them.  Usually it’s the scientists going to the school.  And as part of looking at that programme I’ve been able to talk to a large number of scientists who talk about the…well, they’re just so passionate about their science and one of the reasons they do it is they’re promoting science.  They’re promoting science to the public and they also find that it’s great for themselves because it increases their communication skills and they feel as if they’re promoting science, not just to schools, where they often turn science, particularly in primary schools, they turn science from a minor subject around to science as a major subject.  And that way they’re bringing more kids into science and more scientists into the pipeline, I guess, as we go up.

On current research

One of the things I’m doing at the moment actually is, with a colleague, we’ve been looking at kids in playgroups.  SciTech has an outreach programme that goes out to playgroups and we’ve been going and watching the excursion if you like, the SciTech outreach in the playgrounds and then we’re going back the following week, and then about six weeks after that, and talking to the parents about things that have happened within their life following the SciTech excursion.  And one of the stories I was reading last night from one of the interviews, the interviewees, one of the parents, was that her little girl had spent quite a lot of time looking at, with lenses, which are one of the activities, looking at bugs and things with lenses.  And she’d gone home and told her father about this and her father had found an old pair of binoculars and she carried those binoculars around, we’re talking about a three year old here, she had carried those binoculars around for the next three days, at home, looking at things through them and, according to her mother, became much more aware of what was big and what was little, so that she was juggling the sizes.  So, even little kids, they’re great explorers and if you can promote that exploration by helping them to understand the world around them it just gives them such a great basis for moving onwards.


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