Skip to Content

Issue One 2013 - Issue #18

Print this article
Share |

Inspiring knowledge

Story by Lisa Starkey

View articles in related topics: Astrophysics/Astronomy, Education

Sarah Maddison
Astrophysicist Associate Professor Sarah Maddison

Despite a hectic research, training and supervision schedule, often involving international travel, astrophysicist Sarah Maddison still finds time to inspire a new generation of scientists at primary schools across Melbourne.

Associate Professor Maddison is a long-time participant in the Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program run by the CSIRO since 2007. Her journey to school engagement began earlier than this, however, having visited Victorian primary schools on her own initiative for many years, with the broad aim of getting kids to embrace science. She is now working with her fifth school.

“Sarah has such an engaging personality and is a very interesting presenter, so the students love to interact with her,” says Alexandra Parrington, teacher at Cornish College, who has worked with Associate Professor Maddison for many years, initially at Hartwell Primary School. “The students are always really excited to work with a real scientist.”

Teaching the scientific process

Associate Professor Maddison attributes her own inspiration to becoming a scientist from her time at primary school doing hands-on experiments. Her memory of those experiences encouraged her to try to get more primary school-age children interested in science.

Of course, inspiring kids, and particularly girls, to consider a career in science is part of the goal, but it’s also much more than that. “Science involves vital life skills that everyone should be trained in, no matter what their career goals,” Associate Professor Maddison says.

“Science is not just about memorising facts – the order of the planets, elements in the periodic table … It’s about teaching the scientific process: how to be critical, how to gather evidence, how to test a hypothesis or an assumption.”

New views of the world

Sharon Kenyon-Smith, a teacher at St Joseph’s primary school in Hawthorn, says the message is getting across, sparking an interest in the wider world. “The children see science now as part of their everyday life.”

A moon project conducted by Associate Professor Maddison at Hartwell, St Joseph’s and Footscray primary schools involved using scientific methods to analyse and learn about the phases of the moon. “It was about getting the kids to actually go outside and look up,” Associate Professor Maddison says. “We did it over two lunar phases. I would go to school each week and take them through the scientific process. We would discuss what they observed, what records they took and have debates over the shape of the moon. We would also discuss how to improve their observations.”

According to Kenyon-Smith, “The students know that they can be scientists by observing, collating information, wondering, posing questions and problems, and finding solutions. They can do this now, today, and make a positive difference to their world.”

When not in schools, Associate Professor Maddison is working on improving our understanding of how the planets form. She has made a number of impressive astronomical discoveries and regularly travels overseas to conduct further research.

Her research looks at how tiny dust grains grow to become something as big as planets – objects more than a trillion times the size of these tiny objects. By analysing the chemistry of these dust grains, their interaction with each other and their evolution into planets, Associate Professor Maddison hopes to better understand some of the mechanisms that shaped our universe. Using the Australia Telescope Compact Array – six 22-metre radio telescopes near the remote town of Narrabri in central New South Wales – her work has demonstrated that these dust grains grow extremely fast. The results have been combined with results from the new giant Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile – a vast field of 66 telescopes located more than 5000 metres above sea level in the Atacama Desert – and have confirmed her model predictions.

The next generation of scientists

Finding the time to stay engaged in the Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program is not always easy. “Some days I have to really juggle tasks,” Associate Professor Maddison explains. “However, some of the teachers I work with are really into their science and I find their energy and enthusiasm contagious.”

Of course, there is also the instant feedback of the students to spur her on. “I try to get them to answer … their own questions. When they work their way to an answer themselves, their faces light up with excitement and pride in their own ability. That is a priceless moment.

“I think outreach is extremely important and this feeling is supported by Swinburne. While such outreach activities might seem to cut into research time, I think it’s extremely important to share our science knowledge with the public and to help engage the next generation of scientists.”

The science of now

The brainchild of former Australian chief scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, the Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program (SMiS) began in 2007. It has been so successful that it now reaches more than one-tenth of Australia’s schools.

Dr Peacock, who remains the program’s patron, says that it “promotes science education in primary and secondary schools, helps to engage and motivate students in their learning of science, and broadens awareness of the types and variety of exciting careers available in the sciences.”

The program involves scientists and mathematicians partnering with individual teachers in ongoing, professional partnerships. According to Marian Heard, director of the CSIRO-managed program, there have been a total of 3088 partnerships established in 1373 Australian schools to date. The list of participating scientists includes 2011 Nobel prize-winner for physics, Professor Brian Schmidt.

In Victoria there are almost 300 active partnerships, with more than 100 schools on the waiting list for a scientist.

Each partnership is unique, with the teacher and scientist together able to decide how it will work. There are no fixed hours. Scientists may visit the school once or twice a year, a couple of times a term, or once a week or month.

Other partnerships use email and video conferencing almost exclusively. Proving that distance is no barrier, a group of students in the Northern Territory partnered with a Queensland scientist and discovered a unique tarantula species. An Antarctic scientist in Hobart has formed a long-distance partnership with a primary school in Townsville, and a Hobart-based ice-core analyst has partnered with a school in Darwin.

In Victoria, a Swinburne-based mathematician, Professor Geoffrey Brooks, has inspired students through regular brainteasers, tutorials and lectures using applied mathematics and a tub of very cold water. His teaching even includes the all-important ‘maths of football’.

“We’re not trying to turn every child into a scientist, that is not the goal,” says Dr Louise Emmerson, a Tasmanian-based scientist. “What we want to do is make them find science palatable, make them understand they can be a scientist if they want to, just continue to keep them engaged in science.”

It’s not just the students that get inspired either, according to Marian Heard. “It inspires and motivates the teachers and scientists.” Of course, with access to working scientists it can also give what Dr Jim Peacock describes as, “The science of now, not ... the last couple of centuries.”

The program has Australian Government funding through to June 2016.

Interested teachers, scientists or mathematicians can register online by visiting the Scientistis in Schools website or the Mathematicians in Schools website.

Back Issues