What’s the coolest thing your science teacher ever did? Odds are it wasn’t a dance about plate tectonics.
Suzy Urbaniak teaches science at Kent Street Senior High School in Perth, and under her lead students don’t just come to the classroom - they come to work.
"I call myself an educator," says Urbaniak. "I'm there to facilitate learning. If they come up to me and ask 'how do I do this', I will not spoon-feed them, and that's one thing students all say about me. I get them to have their own initiative."
After graduating from ANU where she won several student accolades, Urbaniak spent years as a geologist at Newcrest Mining. This industry experience has set her up to give kids more than just textbook knowledge of scientific concepts.
In fact, when she made the career switch to education, textbooks and desks quickly went out the door after she saw how little the system had changed in the 30 years since her own high-school graduation.
"I thought 'I can't teach like this',” says Urbaniak. “My teaching philosophy is entirely based on developing young scientists in an environment that is reflective of scientific practices, skills, techniques, and the content is woven into that."
At first some of the biggest challenges Urbaniak faced was the “fear of moving away from the textbook," because the idea that kids' learning has to be assessed via exams is pervasive in education. But the real-world skills her students acquired have trumped the old methods.
"I just kept doing it and demonstrating the work that the students produced - I got them producing proper scientific reports, like the ones I did at work."
Regular field trips are the "keystone" of Urbaniak’s method, and she has run 45 of them over the past decade as a science teacher.
"We've been from Esperance down south all the way to Shark Bay in Western Australia, and I've taken them internationally as well,” she says.
“It's going out into the real world - and you see the chemistry, the biology, all wrapped up in geological concepts. So you see that integration of all the scientific disciplines as well as societal impact. It's a very holistic and multidisciplinary approach, so the students can then see how it all happens, and it's not all just in boxes.”
She's had kids sifting sands and collecting precious stones, or taking huge hammers to smashing apart rocks, revealing crystals inside - and in the process they learn about chemistry concepts such as ionic compounds. And what better way to visualise molten rock than to go to Hawaii and witness lava flowing in action.
But it’s not just about making science fun - Urbaniak sets up her students for long-term achievement.
Her approach, this year formalised as the Centre of Resources Excellence (CoRE) program, will be making its way to regional schools in Pilbara and the Goldfields, and the money ($50,000) from the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching is a significant contribution to this endeavour.
“My main goal has been to connect industry, education and government so that we're all on the same page and what's happening in schools is actually preparing the kids for industry,” Urbaniak explains.
“I’m hoping that by engaging my students within the scientific field, we’re going to have a great workforce beyond 2025.”