Measuring the Impact of Specialist Science Enrichment Programs at the Gravity Discovery Centre

Academics interested in promoting and enhancing science education (from the University of Western Australia, Curtin University and the Univ of Glasgow) have joined forces with a charity, The Polly Farmer Foundation and The Gravity Discovery Centre Foundation to undertake an in-depth study of the effectiveness of schools science enrichment programs. The Polly farmer Foundation specialises in providing education enrichment to indigenous disadvantaged students in remote schools. The GDC and the AIGO Research facility makes it possible to offer three types of science enrichment , one especially designed for indigenous students and those without positive attitude to science. The second provides challenging modules some of which focus specifically on modern concepts of space, time and gravity, including Einstein’s theories and the search for gravitational waves. The third enrichment program allows students to take part in real research and offers the possibility of real discoveries, using UWA’s large new robotic telescope – The Zadko Telescope.

The motivation of the project is the current science teacher shortage in secondary schools. Many specialist facilities and programs have been set up to provide science enrichment programs. All aim to help reverse the decline of students taking science and at reversing the declining attitudes towards science in schools. Our proposition is that:

a) specialised enrichment programs stimulate teachers as well as students and can lead to a positive change in student attitudes towards science

b) creating positive attitudes towards science in schools is a critical factor in students’ career aspirations

c) students can be engaged and motivated through exposure to real science and scientific endeavour

d) for some students, particularly from disadvantaged and indigenous backgrounds, a narrative approach to science can motive and engage them in science.

The new research program aims to test these propositions.

Science enrichment is often only offered to science motivated talented students. While we want to measure the effectiveness of enrichment for this group, we also want to find out whether programs can turn around the attitudes of students who have a negative view of science, and whether they can excite students who have had minimal exposure to science.

To change the attitudes of students with negative attitudes to science, as well as for remote and deprived schools, we will make use of a brand new specialist facility at the GDC: The Cosmology Gallery that combines traditional creation stories told through art work, text and movies, with the scientific story of the origin of the universe. We want to measure the benefits of learning by narrative using this specialist facility.

The aim of the new project is to measure the effectiveness of science enrichment programs in changing student attitudes to, and interest in science and in student career goals and expectations. We will follow attitudes and opinions of students from different groups who have been exposed to specialised enrichment programs at the GDC, and to those who have had additional enrichment through participating in real astronomical research.

A particular focus of this project will be on students from remote schools from the Pilbara and Kimberley regions. The proposal will enable mining companies who already support indigenous students in the regions of their operations through the Polly Farmer Foundation to obtain quantitative measures of the benefits of their support. Specifically we will work with:

a) disadvantaged and un-engaged students from remote schools and low socio-economic city schools

b) academically talented students including those with negative attitudes towards science.

c) Mainstream students

We plan to compare three types of enrichment programs.

A) Specialised Enrichment (SE):
We will assess the benefits from participation in exciting high quality programs that have already been developed by the GDC Foundation, and which are comparable to many enrichment programs offered by diverse facilities across Australia. (but including pre-visit and post-visit classroom activities)

B) Motivating through Research (MR):
Students will use the Zadko telescope and interact with research students: this research will enable students to discover new astronomical objects and to improve the orbital analysis of known objects. (asteroids, near earth objects and gamma ray bursts).

C) Learning through Narrative (LN):
Students will use the new Cosmology Gallery facilities. Here we will focus on the story of the universe and we will compare cultural creation stories with the scientific story. This unique facility is specifically designed for a multi-culural approach to learning.

We will follow students over three years. Where possible we will monitor both students attitudes towards science and student’s pre-tertiary subject choices (compared with control groups). At the end of this research program we will have quantitative data that will allow the education sector to better determine the benefits of specialist science education facilities. Through the programs we will be measuring we will have provided thousands of students with valuable science enrichment.

Educational Benefits

Poor results shown by Australian students in attitudes to science, poor science participation rates, low tertiary entrance ranks and declining results in international tests at the Year 8 level, which all point to the dire problems in science education. Australia’s future prosperity requires a highly skilled workforce with good science training. The GDC was set up with view to contributing to overcoming this problem.

The nation needs to know the best approach to overcoming the science training problem. The shortage of science teachers means that some schools no longer offer upper school physics and chemistry. This means that many students are deprived of science opportunities.

One solution could be the creation of more specialist science education enrichment facilities. Data is needed to discover the benefits of such facilities. This project is designed to provide that data, which could inform future investment in the education sector.

The problems with indigenous education are well known. This project will assess a particular approach that combines multicultural and traditional cosmology with scientific cosmology. Four leading indigenous artists were commissioned to create cosmology related artworks. These works sit alongside the Timeline of the Universe, a 60 meter scientific installation. Meteorites and megafauna fossils provide tangible evidence. We believe that this purpose built facility will excite and motivate indigenous students and students who have negative attitudes to science. Many indigenous students will take part in these programs and our research will determine their effectiveness. Results of the research will enable the benefits of such programs to be determined to allow future funding options to be assessed.

Australia is world renowned in Astronomy. To maintain our edge and to maintain the levels of expertise to support projects such as the International Square Kilometer Array project and the Australian International Gravitational Observatory expert scientists are required. This project will help enable Indigenous students to be trained as Astronomers and will also help ensure that mining companies have a high level of skilled Indigenous personnel. Mining companies have a problem that many personnel will not make their minesites their long term homes. The local indigenous population is less inclined to move away so there are distinct commercial benefits in having well trained local population. This project will assist in this regard.

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