We have just finished a semester long course at year 10 in advanced chemistry and physics, a subject we called Future Energies and Sustainability. The focus of this course was a research project into our local suburb, Ferntree Gully, to investigate different aspects of energy production, usage and sustainability that could be improved for the year 2040.
Josie Hopkins and I came up with the idea of contextual unit to teach science at St Joseph's College because we wanted to achieve several things:
1) We wanted to students to engage with science as an inquiry based subject, rather than a content based subject (although there is a need to teach content as part of science).
2) We wanted students to be involved in a learning process (the research project) that is authentic (solving real world problems, engaging with real people)
3) We wanted to use assessments (the research project, the student blog) that allow for deeper learning through reflection and collaboration in an ongoing process for students.
Last Monday we came to the end of the course, finishing on a high with student led presentations in our learning centre, Chieri. The students put on a science fair of sorts, presenting their research into future energies and sustainability for the suburb of Ferntree Gully. What they presented was of high quality, with deep understanding evident in many presentations. Some groups had made posters communicating their ideas, whilst others had conducted experiments to test and refine hypotheses. We provided the boys with an authentic audience - Lisa Loulier and Sam Sampanthar from Knox City Council's Community Sustainability Program; Kate Evans, Director of KIOSC at Swinburne University; as well as a member from Energy Australia; and a long serving member of the engineers' institute of Australia. These visitors were full of enthusiasm about the program after speaking with the boys, impressed by the level of their understanding and knowledge in their project areas. Several students have been asked to present at an Expo at KIOSC early next year.
What really hit me with this course finishing up was that it could work. Science education could be contextualised and allow for deeper understanding. Students could have a longer term exposure to the themes underlying a subject and move beyond surface or skill learning. It was by no means perfect, and I can already see ways to improve how we ran the course, including: how and why we use the student blogs, incorporating more practical work, building more links between students and the community. Yet the overall results of the project encourage me to think that we can positively engage students in science, and achieve better understanding of science through making it real in the classroom.