The Plastic Brain

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The Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS)

ASSETS brings together a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from around the country for a ten-day Cultural Leadership and Scientific Inquiry programme.

The students are exposed to a fantastic array of experiences, designed to open up new pathways for exploring their interest in science, and their own cultural heritage. They return to their communities as leaders, and often go on to diverse and exciting careers.

This is my third year as a tutor in the Summer School. I have been privileged to work with some extraordinarily talented young people, taken out of their comfort zone and given challenges far above their education level: the general differential is Year 10 students doing university-level experiments.

ASSETS is hosted by the Australian Science and Mathematics School, and this year’s programme has included contributions from the Living Kaurna Cultural Centre (see this previous post), UniSA School of Natural and Built Environments, the Gene Technology Access Centre.

The programme is also well supported by the Governor, His Excellency Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce. In previous years the students have visited Government House, but this year the Governor came to the laboratories at ASMS to see the students in action.

GovernorAs an academic tutor, my role is guide students through their inquiry projects. These are student-driven projects which draw on skills and understandings derived from the initial part of the program. To be honest, I did not have to work hard this year. The group worked exceptionally well, despite occasional set-backs. They brought with them solid scientific skills and understandings and had a determined yet relaxed attitude. I would love to have filled this post with photos of the students doing some amazing science, but due to privacy concerns you instead get a tightly cropped in photo of me with the governor.

The culmination of the scientific programme was the final presentations at the Mawson Institute this morning. All of the groups presented well-considered studies. I was particularly proud of my group, who examined the effects of botanical extracts on bacteria, specifically showing the surprising acute effects of Melaleuca pentagona extract on Micrococcus luteus.

In case you haven’t got the message, it is a great programme, with amazing outcomes for students (not to mention the learning that I have experienced). Despite its ongoing success the programme is always in need of support. If you think you could contribute in some way, or just want to find out more, go here:

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Notes from a day with Steve Francis.

Today’s Student Free Day was led by Steve Francis, and focused on a strategic direction of the school:

Student Engagement

I took some notes which barely scratch the surface, and may only acts a prompts for people who were actually there. Where possible, I have hyperlinked to his original sources. Here they are:

A survey of Year 10 students has found that the main characteristics for good teacher are:
  • Positive relationships with students
  • Fairness and equity
  • Passionate about their subject and teaching
5 levels of engagement (Schlechty, 2002 ) See also here (pdf).

  • Authentic engagement (flow)
  • Ritual compliance
  • Passive compliance
  • Retreatism
  • Rebellion

7 Reminders for Good Teaching
  • They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Passion sells
  • It’s not about US. It’s about THEM
  • High expectations and the self-fulfilling property
  • Maximise time in the Learning Zone
  • Make it meaningful
  • Show students how much they need to learn
Live the reputation you want to have.
You should have been doing so already, but if not, the second best time is now.
Cores of Credibility (Covey 2008)

  • Integrity
  • Intent
  • Capability
  • Results 
Working on the Work (Schlechty)
  • Content and substance
  • Organisation of Knowledge
  • Product focus
  • Clear and compelling standards
  • Safe environment
  • Affirmation of Performance
  • Affiliation
  • Novelty and variety
  • Choice
  • Authenticity



I take away many new ideas, but mostly it was the resounding reminder that teaching is all about relationships. Engagement, trust, integrity matter. Passion matters.

At the end of the day we are teaching our students, not our subjects. The human element makes it messy, but it also makes it thrilling and rewarding. Don’t be afraid to expose your flaws and admit your mistakes. At the same time strive to improve, and demand the same from your students.