When a free, professional development programme for high school teachers is still going strong after five years, you know you’ve got a successful formula. Biology teachers from around New Zealand are hearing the latest thinking and research from renowned academics with benefits for both their teaching and students’ grades.

The initiative, supported by the Maurice Wilkins Centre, is the brainchild of award winning* scientist Peter Shepherd, deputy director of Maurice Wilkins Centre of Research Excellence, and Professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science at the University of Auckland.

Peter says the idea came from observing his partner Rachel Heeney (Head of Biology at Auckland’s Epsom Girls Grammar School) and her colleagues, struggle to keep up with advancements in the rapidly changing field of biology.

Keeping pace with cutting edge science

“I honestly couldn’t believe there wasn’t anything in place, but it was easy to solve. We developed a very low budget outreach programme and to make the most impact, asked teachers what they wanted. The answer was to be kept up to speed with the latest scientific developments,” says Peter. “We take renowned scientists around the country to talk about a variety of subjects relevant to NCEA, giving teachers added confidence and resources to make the job easier.”

There is such a thing as a free lunch

Rachel Heeney, who coordinates the programme, says their first event was an eye-opener.

“We booked one room for about 30 people but 135 came along! It was massive and everyone was so excited. Presenters who were prepared to do one talk had to go from room to room doing multiple talks. Everyone got so much out of it and there was such a spontaneous, positive response,” she says.

Peter says it helps that it’s free.

“It’s hard for teachers to get support to attend key events. Teachers often get respect from their community but not much professional development support or recognition. This programme costs us [Maurice Wilkins CoRE] about $30,000. That’s very little over the year when you think of the impact it has. It’s great value for money utilising resources that essentially are already there.”

Getting to grips with transgenesis and other tricky subjects

Transgenesis is just one of the many complex subjects biology teachers were struggling to teach when it was included in NCEA.

“Now we’re empowered by the knowledge we’ve gained in a really positive atmosphere with scientists who know their subject and love that we’re asking questions,” says Rachel. “It’s really difficult with biology because it’s moving forward more than other subjects. That’s not an insult, it’s true. We needed to convince schools that we really needed the professional development for this. Lots of schools are on board now and have really seen the results.”

Students come out on top

“The year after Epsom Girls teachers came to the programme, their students’ merits and excellence doubled,” says Peter. “Teachers were able to fill in details and give extra insight. Teaching Biology is tough, you have a huge range of topics to have an in-depth understanding of. Anything we can do to add detail helps teachers inspire and teach their kids.”

And the feedback keeps getting better and better.

“The feedback’s been embarrassingly good. There hasn’t been anything like this for teachers before. A lot of science and biology teachers want to be linked into that world and are excited by advances in science. They love the opportunity to catch up on what’s happening.”

What’s next?

Peter’s currently establishing a research project that aims to reveal the role of fructose in New Zealand’s childhood obesity epidemic. The idea is that students, together with their teachers, undertake the research on themselves in conjunction with one or more NCEA standards.

“We’re involving the schools in the research projects to build partnerships and collaboration – looking at fructose uptake in kids. It’s the next level.” he says. “It’s not just about doing stuff for teachers, we realised how they can help us in our research. Going forward we’re creating an environment where teachers can interact with university researchers and this will have all sorts of spin offs in other areas we wouldn’t have had before.”

Read more about the new project in this NZ Herald article.

If you’d like more information about the Maurice Wilkins Centre days visit the website or the Facebook page. If you have an area or topic you’d like covered in an upcoming workshop, contact Rachel Heeney: RHeeney@eggs.school.nz

For other questions contact Professor Peter Shepherd: peter.shepherd@auckland.ac.nz

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*Professor Peter Shepherd, Deputy Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre, has been awarded the Callaghan Medal for pioneering activities to increase the understanding of science by the New Zealand public.