The Plastic Brain

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Five Lessons Learned from a Week in Industry

Recently, I’ve had a lot on my mind. In the last week, I have been taken out of my usual context, and been given the opportunity to look my teaching from a new vantage point. The results have been profound.

But before I talk about this week, I’d like to look back at the last month. I’ve been reading a lot of literature, attended a conference and had discussions with colleagues on pedagogies, mindsets and positive education. It has been revolutionary, and changed the way I approach my teaching. It has coincided with a particularly busy phase in our pastoral care program: course counselling for our Year 10s as they head into their final two years of schooling (the SACE). This, in a way, sets the scene.

In separate part of my  job, I have been working in a team to develop innovating and interesting projects to increase student engagement in STEM subjects. In particular, our STEM team has just finished our second 10-week course for primary students. The STEM Initiative aims to introduce students to our high school, and provide enrichment and extension for students interested in Science, Maths and Technology. Funding to support the STEM Initiative has come through the Advanced Technology Project (sponsored by the Defence Materiel Organisation). As part of their work to link teachers with industry, they recently awarded me an Industry Placement, which brings me back to this week.

My placement is at SAGE Automation, a national company (founded in SA) which provides automation solutions for a variety of projects and industries, including the Arnotts, SA Water, Southern Expressway, Holden, Mining companies and big defence contracts like the Air Warfare Destroyer. When I started my week-long placement on Monday I expected to learn about their business, and take some ideas back to school about what industry employers are looking for and hopefully generate some authentic Maths and Science tasks. However, I had no idea how the concepts of mindsets and positive education would link to the engineering and management practices at SAGE.

Here are some of the lessons I will be taking away with me:

1. The Importance of Mindsets

One of the key goals of my placement was to find out from industry what they need in graduates, and what we can do to better prepare our students for the work force. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time this week talking to employees (“What do you think got you this job?”) and managers (“What do you look for in your employees?”). Without exception, every answer has centred on the attributes outlined by Dweck in her work on growth mindsets. The ability to grow, adapt and learn from mistakes in key.


“SAGE…only hired people who shared the passion to drive exceptional outcomes for our clients….

Loyal and diligent employees live our core values and are empowered to deliver certainty for our clients. It’s an exceptional culture and one of which we are fiercely proud.”

Founder and MD, Andrew Downs.

The other area of my reading which is implicitly practiced in the workforce is Seligman’s Signature Strengths. Every person I’ve met at SAGE seems to embody the notion of working with your Strengths to generate meaning and purpose. Each member of their teams is passionate about what they do, and is given the opportunity to work with their strengths to make their contribution to the overall project. All of this works synergistically to promote that ever elusive state: flow.

2. Attitude and Adaptability

Sounds like a great place to work, doesn’t it? So what advice do they have for students who want to land a job in such a hi-tech, innovative industry? Work on your attitude. Being persistent, but friendly, reliable and punctual are the keys to the steely gates of HR. Form emails just don’t cut it. Pick up the phone, meet and greet, put yourself out there and do whatever you can to make a good name for yourself. Also, don’t expect to always have the same job. Employees in industries like this need to be flexible. Projects can be short or long, come from a range of sectors, and require a range of skills. While the managers do an excellent job of tracking expertise and allocating human resources, every job involves a degree of learning and adaptability. What’s more, clients can be temperamental and change specifications mid-project. You need to be able to adapt and rework your solutions. In teacher-speak, they are looking for life-long learners. [As an aside, I was talking with one of the managers, only half-jokingly, about how changing the assessment criteria one week into a summative task would be a good life lesson for students.]

3. The Maths that Matters

SAGE employs a lot of software, electronics, mechatronics and robotics engineers. Engineers are heavily into the maths subjects at school and university – in fact engineering courses are the most prerequisite-heavy courses in the SATAC guide. We can’t hope to, or should even try to, teach middle school students the maths they would need in some of these high-end career paths. However, certain skills seemed to stand out as key foundational requirements:

  • Ratios, rates and conversions: this week I’ve seen a lot of this: Gearing ratios, scaling, flow rates, belt speeds, pay rates, converting Bars to kPa, microseconds to milliseconds and Euler angles to Quaternions (yeah, look it up, I had to).
  • Boolean logic: Despite its ubiquity in all computer science, which is fundamental to the way we live today, Boolean logic is virtually absent in the Australian Curriculum.
  • Schematics: The process of reducing complex visual information down to schematics, and the reverse operation of reading diagrams and applying understandings to complex systems is fundamental in engineering. Align with this are the skills of reductionism and integration.
  • Interpreting data: In the Maths classroom, numbers usually float freely, only occasionally being linked to context. In industry, numbers are data. They always have meaning and significance. They may be money, dimensions, hours worked, rates, flows or instrument readings. Knowing if the numbers are within an expected range matters and being able to identify trends and investigate patterns is paramount.

4. Project Management and PBL

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning has not been what they do at SAGE (which has been very interesting and informative) but how they do it. As you may have gathered from the above, SAGE’s business runs on the basis of Projects. Each has a unique number,  a Project Manager, a number of engineers and other staff assigned to it. In order to keep everything running smoothly and everyone on the same page, they use a defined set of procedures called the TEP (Technical Execution Practice). The TEP is based on the “V model” below.

V model

The V model starts by looking at your requirements, and designing a solution. On the downside of the V, you break that down to smaller and small tasks which you achieve. In the instance above, that relates to developing IT solutions. On the upside of the V you integrate those small pieces, constantly check back to your design and requirements to see that you are meeting those initial requirements. The final stage is the delivery of the finished product – in this case a finished IT platform.

I’ve been interested in Project-based (PBL) learning for a while, and I’ve completed a couple of units which may be considered PBL (although everyone seems to have a different definition of what qualifies as PBL). One of my key reflections has been how difficult it can be for the students to know what is required and where they are up to. This would lead to major issues in industry, so naturally they have developed structures to avoid this (hence the V model and the TEP). Inspired by the TEP, I have been working on generating supporting documentation and a new “project vocabulary” for managing PBL. It also ties in beautifully with the trend for using design-based thinking and the IB MYP Design Cycle. Not only should adopting these models improve the PBL process, but can be used to explicitly teach highly transferrable workforce skills.

5. Change management

SAGE is a business which is interested in growth and innovation. Change is an essential part of their operations. One of the most valuable sessions I had during the week was with the Engineering Operations Manager. He ran through the process of change management which he had learnt from his guru, and which he was enacting at SAGE. It seemed simple, but therein lies the genius:

  1. Set a clear and common vision for the organisation
  2. Have short-run (in this case 100-day) Strategic Projects (SPs) which take you closer to that vision
  3. Work in teams to achieve projects in a transparent way*
  4. Celebrate your successes.

* Everyone knows what the teams are, what they are doing, and why, and can see the progress they are making. This is achieved by literally printing the SPs on A3 sheets and pinning them up in a common staff area. Online seems good – but people just won’t check it.

Even if the aims of each SP are small, incremental progress is evident, morale grows and directed change is happening.

Lasting lessons

I will certainly come away with what I was hoping for. I have some great videos and resources, contact with potential guest speakers, and am writing new activities and assessments. However, I will also come away from my experience at SAGE with a new outlook on not only what can be achieved in the classroom, but what can be achieved within organisations. The company expertise is in making things work effectively and efficiently. Their practices provide a model for both students and teachers.

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Thank you to all of the staff at SAGE, who have been so welcoming, patient and generous.


Soil Liquefaction

Soil liquefaction occurs during earthquakes, causing a quicksand-like bog which can topple buildings and swallow cars.

Liquefaction occurred during the recent Christchurch earthquake

Videos of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake liquefaction can be found here (during) and here (aftermath).

I got the idea for a soil liquefaction demonstration from the brilliant ASTA resources for the Year 9 plate tectonics unit. The instructions for the demonstration are in Lesson 4 on Earthquakes.

It worked very well. There are before and after shots below, and then a video.

IMG_1218b IMG_1220

Left: Before the earthquake. The building stands tall. Right: The building has collapsed, and is half submerged.

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Rolling (Personal) National Science Week Coverage

It’s National Science Week!

For me, these have passed fairly quietly in the past, to be honest. However, one looks like being the biggest yet.

On the itinerary is:

Science Alive

Australia’s largest science expo event with spectacular science, animal and magic shows and a huge range of hands-on fun for all ages.

When: Saturday, August 10 2013 till Sunday, August 11 2013. 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Where: Goyder Pavilion
Adelaide Showground, Goodwood Road, Wayville, SA, 5034
What: Hands-on activityShow
Theme: Archaeology and antiquity, Human body and movement, Energy and transport, Environment and nature, Health and medical, Space and astronomy, Innovation and technology

[UPDATE] I missed out this year, but my son went with a friend and his parents. By all accounts it was a great day, both boys returning with grins from ear to ear. The highlight of the day was “talking like a dalek”.

Once again, the event was packed across both days. Seems like the people of Adelaide just can’t get enough science. Perhaps the popularity would be enough to prompt a sister event in six months’ time? (Hint, hint)

Southern Schools Science Expo

Southern region high school will be showcasing their STEM programs to primary students. This event is organised as part of the Advanced Technology Project (supported by the Defense Materiel Organisation)

When: Tuesday, August 13 2013
Where: Marion Leisure and Fitness Centre
What: Demonstrations and hands-on activities

[UPDATE] Great day! ASMS won the People’s Choice Award for “Building a Space Station”. Blackwood High School won the Expert Judges’ Award for “Quadcopters” – but, as they say in the classics, at the end of the day “SCIENCE WAS THE REAL WINNER”

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Lunchtime Science

As part of National Science Week our science teachers are providing exciting science demonstrations to students during lunch time.

From our student bulletin:

NATIONAL SCIENCE WEEK: Happy National Science Week! To celebrate we will be hosting a number of lunchtime activities that showcase the wonder and beauty of SCIENCE! Activities that will be running are:
Wednesday- lunchtime 1pm in Psychology Lab– We have a real life scientist (yes they do exist and some actually appear quite normal)- Professor John Long from Flinders University who will give a presentation on the vast array of careers in science and where science can take you. If you are even slightly contemplating this pathway in your future life then this is the presentation for you!
Thursday-lunchtime 1pm in Chemistry Lab- SPECTACULAR CHEMICAL REACTIONS- Come and see and marvel at the magic of Chemistry and how simply combining 2 substances can result in something quite SPECTACULAR.
Friday- lunchtime 1pm in Chemistry Lab- ELEPHANT’S TOOTHPASTE- When was the last time you brushed your pet Elephant’s teeth? Sounds like its well overdue! Come and make Elephant’s toothpaste and ensure your elephant gets the pearly whites it deserves! More importantly find out the answer to the age old question “why is it so?” 
Look forward to seeing you all there!

[UPDATE] Photos from our lunchtime science series below:

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Science Excellence Awards

This is the highlight of my National Science Week; partly because it should be a great night to celebrate science, by mostly because I have been chosen as a finalist in the Early Career STEM Educator of the Year  (School Teaching) category. You can vote for me in the People’s Choice Awards, though at this stage the winner seems to be a easy to pick.

When: Friday, August 16 2013
Where: Adelaide Town Hall, Auditorium
What: Awards for South Australian Scientist of the Year, as well as other categories.


Finalist award

[UPDATE] Well they really did save the best for last. What an amazing evening.  Highlights for me included the keynote address by Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, and the chance to talk to professionals from industry, research and education who all have a passion for promoting science.

I left with a very positive feeling towards the future of science in South Australia. A showcase like that really brings home how many fantastic researchers we have in this state. Furthermore, we have many high-tech industries wanting to support science, and providing great opportunities for graduates. Lastly, my fellow category finalists, especially the winners, gave everyone confidence that our new generation of scientists are in good hands. Although we were in the minority, the science educators were certainly made to feel welcome. One of the biggest spontaneous rounds of applause was when Jeremy LeCornu mentioned in his acceptance speech that science educators do not often receive this kind of recognition – and the audience clapped loudly in an attempt to redress the balance.

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Warriparinga Wetlands Excursion

Excursions are always difficult.

Payments, consent forms, chasing up students, cancellations, rescheduling, transport concerns, weather concerns: I had it all. Just before we left, I reached that point where I swore I’d never do it again.

And yet, as soon as we arrived at Warriparinga all of the strife was soon forgotten. The place is an oasis of calm, just metres from one of Adelaide’s busiest roads. It is home to the Living Kaurna Cultural Centre, through whom I had arranged the excursion.

This is what I wrote for the school newsletter:


Dr Tinsley

My Year 9 class and I were lucky to visit the Warriparinga Wetlands during Week 3. The site is home to the Living Kaurna Cultural Centre, who arranged a tour for us, led by Jamie, a Kaurna and Narangga man.

Warriparinga is culturally important, as is marks the start of the Tjilbruke Dreaming trail. As Jamie led our class around the wetlands he shared the significance of the area, and described the many uses of the local flora and fauna. Students recorded their learning experiences:

“I learned about the many ways that plants were used. They could be used for medicine, food, weaving and many other things.”

“I learned how strong the connection with themselves and the land that they live on. They had learned all about the survival techniques that the plants could give them.”

“They are very connected to the land. And even though they were forced to participate in English customs, their traditions survived and are living on.”

At the end of the tour, Jamie graciously provided us with a lesson and a recital using the didgeridoo. It was a powerful and moving performance, which brought together our scientific and cultural learning.

The excursion formed the centrepiece of my “Communities and Ecosystems” unit for the Australian Curriculum, which forms part of the Biological Sciences strand.

Ecosystems consist of communities of interdependent organisms and abiotic components of the environment; matter and energy flow through these systems (ACSSU175).

This unit provides an ideal opportunity to bring in the Cross-curriculum Priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. If you click the previous link, you’ll see that this Priority is broken down into a number of Organising Ideas, covering Country,/Place, Culture and People. By introducing students the concept of Aboriginal Nations (see this map), discussing land management practices (eg firestick farming), going on the excursion and debriefing afterwards about what we learned, I was able to discuss many of these organising ideas with my class.

I would strongly recommend to all Yr 9 science teachers to infuse units on ecosystems with an discussion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Furthermore, if you are in the Southern Adelaide region, be sure to visit Warriparinga.

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Teaching Scientific Writing

Year after year, in school after school students are forced to write investigation reports based on a rigid format, often with very little understand of how and why this format was developed. Clearly they are meant as simplified simulacra of peer-reviewed, scientific articles. But there is a deep abyss between “prac reports” and real articles, which are the combined efforts of scientific teams,working for years, distilled into a dozen pages. How can we expect students to understand what they are doing, and why it is important when they can even read what they are trying to replicate? The program outlined below aims to address this problem by progressively constructing the concept of a scientific article from basic principles.

Step 1 – Histories and letters

Scientific writing did not start out with the formal structures we see today. Originally, verbal accounts were given by gentleman scholars at institutions such as the Royal Society. If they could not attend the meeting, a letter may be read in their absence. These letters have become the basis of the scientific article, indeed, publications in the prestigious journal Nature are still called letters.

I had long thought that getting students to write letters describing their experiments might be a good way to introduce them scientific writing. I was discussing this with a former research colleague, now turned award-winning science teacher (@SamMoyle1) who decided to enact my idea. Happy that someone would get my idea off the ground, we chatted, shared resources and off she went. My favourite resource is this letter from Isaac Newton (transcribed here), describing experiments with light (which we do in Yr 9 science). Not so much from the era of scientific letters, but Crick’s letter to his son on the discovery of DNA’s structure is also worth a mention.

When I met up her last week she said she had done it and it was successful. She had the students write a letter to their parents about an experiment. The task was titled “Dear Learned Colleague” and she sent me her task sheet:

Before the advent of email, Internet and phones etc., early scientists had to communicate their findings by written letter. They did not use the standard template for experiment write-ups as we use today (Sectioned by Hypothesis, Methods, Results, Discussion and Conclusion) but rather, as though they were talking to their friend or colleague explaining what they were doing, why, what happened and what their thoughts about it were. From this early form of correspondence between colleagues, the modern day science communication journal, ‘Science Letters’ evolved.

Next semester we plan to actually get our students to write and post (yes, snail mail) letters to each other. Our challenge will be to see if one group can replicate the other’s experiment. The aim here is to show why the formal and meticulous structure of the journal article was developed.

Step 2 – The evolution of journals

The modern format of the scientific article is a result of the professionalism of science. Scientific journal began being published in the 17th and 18th centuries, and really took off in the 19th.

 An impetus for expansion was the increasing interval between a paper’s reading to a learned society, and its publication in that society’s organ – up to five years later. Scitext

Along with the new format, came stylistic restrictions and formal referencing. It is important for students to see why these changes were important, and how they helped to improve the quality and reproducibility of scientific work. Wrapped up with this is the system of peer review, a unique feature of scientific publication. Though seemingly diabolical for authors, peer-review is one of the most robust systems of quality assurance developed.

Step 3 – (De)constructing an abstract

By now students should know what an article is, and why it has its many parts. But they are still a long way from having the skills to write one (or the shadow of one, such as we require in high school).

As is done in many English classrooms, before you can construct a text type, you should first deconstruct a text type. Before we tackle a full article, the abstract provides an accessible entry point for secondary students.

Take this abstract, for example:

Many plants in Australia have their seeds buried in order for the species to survive fires. The seeds start to germinate under the soil at certain temperatures. Seeds of Acacia terminalis and Dillwynia floribunda were examined in this experiment. It was hypothesised that the seeds need heat for the germination to start.Seeds of the two species were treated in hot and cold water and left to start germinating.Acacia terminalis showed a significant response in germination after the hot water treatment while Dillwynia floribunda did not. Neither seed showed a response in germination after cold water treatment. The results for Dillwynia floribunda were unexpected but may be explained by factors such as water temperature and the length of time the seeds remained in the heated water.

Which students should be able to break down into sections like this:

Many plants in Australia have their seeds buried in order for the species to survive fires. The seeds start to germinate under the soil at certain temperatures. Seeds of Acacia terminalis and Dillwynia floribunda were examined in this experiment. It was hypothesised that the seeds need heat for the germination to start.Seeds of the two species were treated in hot and cold water and left to start germinating.Acacia terminalis showed a significant response in germination after the hot water treatment while Dillwynia floribunda did not. Neither seed showed a response in germination after cold water treatment. The results for Dillwynia floribunda were unexpected but may be explained by factors such as water temperature and the length of time the seeds remained in the heated water. Background InformationOutline of what was investigated in this experiment
HypothesisSummary of MethodSummary of Results

Summary of Discussion

Once they understand abstracts, they could move from writing reports as a letter, to summarising they experiments as an abstract. Many sites, like this, offer tips in writing a good abstract, which I feel is much more manageable for students as they start their scientific writing journey.

Step 4 – Deconstructing an article

As I wrote at the start, students cannot be expected to read and understand peer-reviewed articles. But with the aid of a teacher, they should be able to read the headings, interpret the graphs and follow the flow of the argument.

Here, I would have students construct a hypothesis and evidence concept map of a simple paper. This would be based on drawing out claims from a paper’s abstract, and looking at which figures support those claims.

Step 5 – Writing an experimental report

Only after the preceding steps do I feel students would be ready to write a full experimental report. It is clear that it takes time to build through all of these steps. I would suggest for Year 9s it would take the whole year. However, I feel it is a worthwhile investment of time.

Australian Curriculum

I would be negligent of me not to mention the new Australian Curriculum at this point.

Take a look at the Year 9 Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills (which account for two thirds of the year’s content). Surely the program outlined above goes a long way to putting that content on equal footing to the Scientific Understanding content which currently dominates most syllabi.

Finally, let us not forget this:

8-Year-Olds Publish Scientific Bee Study

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The Amazing Spider-Math Equation

Just so you know, most directors consult some sort of actual scientists to get the details of their superhero movies right. The Amazing Spider-Man went a step further, to design an equation for a chalkboard scene that would describe how cell regeneration and mortality would work.

Because if you don’t get the scientific details right, Neil deGrasse Tyson will find you, ridicule you, and make you change your movie.

Via jtotheizzoe

( Boing Boing)

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Should you ever wonder why it was called La Belle Époque, please refer to the above picture.

Via tamburina:

The first air show at the Grand Palais in Paris, France. September 30th, 1909. Photographed in Autochrome Lumière by Léon Gimpel.

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Children’s perceptions of scientists, before and after actually meeting them.

Via this article, via MindShift.

Particularly relevant after this came out today:

Huge drop in year 12 students studying science‎ 

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Last week, I set my Year 11 Scientific Studies class the task of analysing the composition of a rock on Mars. Yesterday, they succeeded.

The video is my quick documentation of the processes. A pair of the students have the task of doing a more complete and thorough job, which I will hopefully post here in the future…

I was a great way to end my final school placement. Now I just have a few weeks of my course to finish, then a long break before starting teaching for real in January.