Premier’s Macquarie Bank Science Scholarship
Exploring investigations K–10
Keira High School, Fairy Meadow
The 2001 research report ‘The Status and Quality of Teaching and Learning of Science in
Australian Schools’ (Goodrum, Hackling & Rennie 2001) focuses on the importance of
scientific literacy as an outcome of schooling. Professor Leonie Rennie (2005) proposes
that scientifically literate people:
… are interested in and understand the world around them, engage in the
discourses of and about science, are able to identify questions, investigate and draw
evidence-based conclusions, are skeptical and questioning of claims made by others
about scientific matters and make informed decisions about the environment and
their own health and well being.
This stance is reflected in the New South Wales, years 7–10 Science syllabus. All New
South Wales students are required to undertake at least one substantial research project
in each of stages 4 and 5. In order to undertake such a project, students need well
developed skills in planning investigations, carrying out investigations to collect evidence,
reflecting on the evidence collected and their experimental design, thinking it through to
formulate conclusions, and presenting findings in an appropriate way to engage the target
audience of their choice. Clearly, the School Certificate science students of 2005 are
working scientifically, rather than merely learning about science, as shown in Figure 1, an
‘experiment’ from a year 10 student’s book of 1965, the year of the first School
Figure 1—Year 10 student’s science workbook, 1965.
The challenge for secondary Science faculties, and communities of schools, is to develop
scientific literacy, including investigation skills, in a systematic manner. This study,
undertaken with funding from the Premier’s Science Teachers Scholarships, 2004,
represents one approach to this challenge.
Focus of the study
Teachers from the Keira Community of schools have a history of working together and
had previously examined the continuum of learning from kindergarten to year 12 by
examining the stage statements written into Board of Studies, Science syllabuses.
This study was in the form of an action learning project, designed to:
identify and describe models of successful practice in using open-ended
identify and address the professional learning needs of teachers involved (five
teachers, one from each of stages 1 to 5, from the Keira Community of schools);
trial, document and evaluate classroom strategies which support open-ended
investigations in each of stages 1 to 5 in NSW schools;
produce a hierarchy of skill indicators for investigation outcomes in stages 1 to 5
which could be used within a community of schools; and
document the entire action learning process, including program references, work
samples, staff and student interviews, reflective summaries and work samples.
Action learning approach
An action learning approach was taken, as it allowed the participants to explore a central
aspect of their work: developing student investigation skills systematically. The five
weeks leave obtained as part of the scholarship was split into three parts. One week was
used for a study tour in Western Australia at the end of February. Two two-week blocks
were used in mid-March and mid-May to facilitate the work of the action learning team.
In the period from February to May, the project involved a number of phases.
Phase one was the collection and collation of stimulus material, through research and
also a visit to Western Australia.
Phase two involved reviewing the year 10 student research project and analysing
issues that arose for students in its completion. At the same time, teachers were
examining practical activities and trialling resources to determine more systematic
strategies to develop investigation skills.
Phase three developed in the light of these explorations, and an in-depth syllabus
analysis was undertaken. Two secondary teachers and two primary teachers worked
back from the skill outcomes in the 7–10 Science syllabus to determine their origins
in primary documents. From these, indicators for student achievement were drafted.
Phase four involved examining these drafts against student work samples.
Phase five, the evaluation, involved all team members in determining further learning
needs and opportunities for applying the knowledge gained.
The trip to Western Australia arose from research into student investigations. Many
sources cited the work of Mark Hackling, of Edith Cowan University. I had also attended
his keynote address at the Science Teachers’ Association of New South Wales 2003
annual conference. Email contact resulted in support for this project and suggestions for
others to contact in Western Australia. This assistance from Dr Hackling is gratefully
A one-week trip to Western Australia was planned for late February 2005 to try to avoid
peak activity periods that occur so frequently throughout the school year. During this
trip, visits were made to Dr Hackling, to Scitech in Perth, to a Perth primary school and
to Merredin High School. The focus of each of these visits was to identify strategies and
resources to take back to the action learning team.
Dr Hackling stressed the need for whole faculty involvement in managing the change to
open-ended investigations. Common tasks with joint marking help to develop a common
understanding of the desired outcomes and greater consistency of judgement. The role of
diagnostic and formative assessment in developing student work was also discussed. He
suggested the National Progress Maps (2004), from the SEAR website, as a starting point
for the indicator chart which we hoped to develop (see Table 1).
Table 1—Extract from the National Progress Maps (2004)
Domains of scientific literacy
Domain A Domain B Domain C
Formulating or identifying Interpreting evidence and drawing Using understandings for describing
investigable questions and conclusions from their own or others’ and explaining natural phenomena,
hypotheses, planning investigations data, critiquing the trustworthiness of and for interpreting reports about
and collecting evidence evidence and claims made by others, phenomena
and communicating findings
Process Domain: experimental design Conceptual Domain: applies
and data gathering Process Domain: interpreting conceptual understanding
The five Es learning cycle arose during discussion with Dr Hackling. In the first phase of
this learning cycle model, the E stands for ‘engage’. The Scitech Centre in Perth was one
place to check for engaging science activities.
The Scitech Centre is located in a shopping centre, a five-minute walk from the City
West train station. Like Questacon in Canberra, the Wollongong Science Centre and
other centres around the world, it contains intriguing exhibits and hands-on activities to
engage students and foster curiosity.
Scitech is a partnership involving the Western Australian Department of Education and
Training and Rio Tinto, a corporate sponsor.
Kids Science State is a division of Scitech. Its structure and functions were outlined by
Paul Fleay. Six programs are offered statewide (see Figure 2).
The staff running these programs have the opportunity to develop a coordinated
approach. In our discussions, the challenge for teachers of developing coherent, cohesive
programs in which there is systematic skill development was acknowledged.
Julie Sheppard, Head of Science at Merredin Senior High School, was my next host. Julie
had undertaken a study tour to the United Kingdon and Malaysia in 2002 involving the
application of constructivist principles to science education through identifying more
inclusive and motivating learning strategies. Her report had come up in my early research
and she was also recommended as a contact by Dr Mark Hackling.
Kids Science State
Professional Science Roadshow Do It Yourself Science
Development Program Online Resources
provided by Hands on Activities Activity guides and
teachers seconded taken to local resources for schools to To assist with in school
from WA DET communities borrow follow up
Maths Factory Careers fairs
The latest initiative To inform and enthuse
Figure 2—Kids Science State Program Areas.
The Merredin Science faculty was exploring ways to implement open-ended
investigations, among other strategies. The visit to Merredin included classroom
observations, discussions with students, examination of resources and discussions with
the science staff. Julie and I engaged in some file swapping. What was very clear was that,
as head teachers, we were facing similar curriculum challenges in spite of our very
different school contexts. Merredin Senior High School has about 360 students, some of
whom are residential. The school services a local area with a population of about 4000
and is located in the town of Merredin, half way between Perth and Kalgoorlie. Keira
High School has about 800 students and is one of five high schools in central
Wollongong, a regional city with a population of about 200,000.
In both contexts, the challenge for staff is to carry out more investigations, rather than
illustrative experiments. The Merriden faculty used common tasks with joint marking to
develop common understanding.
Back at the workplace: action and reflection
Forming the team
Since 2000, science teachers in New South Wales have encountered great curriculum
change. The concurrent change of both Higher School Certificate and School Certificate
syllabuses meant that some schools were involved in writing new units and assessment
tasks for up to seven courses at the same time. Keira was one such school, with strong
student interest in science to the HSC level. Investigations were incorporated into
teaching programs from years 7 to 10 and student research projects were developed.
This action learning project was seen as an opportunity to review and refine student skill
development. The secondary faculty appreciated the need to develop a greater knowledge
of the types of activities that students were carrying out in primary school. For this
reason, an invitation was extended to primary schools in the area to have team members
in this project. Three primary teachers were involved. The final member of the action
learning team was Dr Kerry Ayre, secretary of the Illawarra Science Teachers
Association, who has organised local science fairs in the Illawarra as a forum for students
to display their achievements to a wider audience. Dr Ayre acted as mentor and ‘critical
friend’ to the team, giving feedback on activities and resource development.
Secondary teacher activities
Secondary teachers used the year 10 student research project as a focus. This project
draws on all skill areas of the New South Wales 7–10 Science syllabus. All year 10
students undertake a major investigation over a 12-week period. The task is staged so
that students complete an initial proposal, trial and modify their methods, carry out their
methods to collect and analyse data, and write up a formal investigation report suitable
for a target audience with a year 10 Science education.
Teachers worked together to refine marking criteria and to examine student work
samples, to identify skill areas that could be systematically strengthened leading up to
year 10. Teachers also worked to increase the number of practical activities that used an
investigative, rather than illustrative, approach. In this part of the project, resources
collected in the initial week of special leave were trialled in classrooms.
Two weeks of the special leave associated with this scholarship were used for team
teaching with both secondary and primary team members, leading group meetings,
modifying and developing resources and analysing student work samples. This provided
a depth of study on an important curriculum issue that is difficult to achieve while
carrying out the head teacher role. The pace at which secondary science teachers work
was illustrated in the difficulties that had to be overcome to schedule meetings and team
teaching opportunities. In the two weeks of the project leader’s special leave, the six
other faculty members were involved in an open night for year 6 students, one excursion,
a Quality Teaching meeting after school, a program review and report writing for one
form. The activities undertaken as part of this project could not have been scheduled
without faculty relief time, funded through this scholarship and supplemented by teacher
professional learning funds from within the school.
The second two weeks of leave involved more examination of work samples and the
collection of feedback from teachers who had trialled strategies and resources. The
development of a secondary indicator chart (see Table 2), based around the New South
Wales 7–10 syllabus skill outcomes, was also undertaken at that time.
Table 2—Extract from the secondary indicators chart
Skill Outcome 7 8 9 10
13.2 Describe the Identify the changed Identify the Distinguish between
conditions needed for variable and independent validity and reliability
a fair test responding variable variable and in first hand
List some features to Use term ‘controlled
Note: Indicators not variable.
keep the same in a fair variables’ Propose a procedure
restated beyond a given
test List variables to for a major
year would be expected Evaluate and modify
to be demonstrated in Sequence procedural a procedure
succeeding years, with steps to produce a Develop
more complex logical order procedures using
situations and familiar equipment
Primary teacher activities
The two weeks of special leave in March allowed visits to primary classrooms to observe
and, in some cases, team-teach with the three primary school members of the team.
During that time the primary teachers were implementing Science and Technology units
in the classroom, trialling and modifying resources and collecting work samples. During
the second two weeks of my leave, primary team meetings and relief time from classes
was used to draft an indicator chart organised along the lines of the secondary chart (see
Table 3). Indicators were extracted from four primary curriculum documents: the Science
and Technology syllabus and Support Document; the Science and Technology outcomes
statement; the English K–6 syllabus; and the Maths K–6 syllabus. These were
supplemented by teacher generated indicators.
Table 3: Extract from the primary indicators chart
Skill Outcome Early Stage 1 Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3
Students manipulate Report findings Record data Use qualitative and Students present
evidence to present it quantitative descriptions their evidence in a
in different formats variety of forms
Represents the same
Can I present this data as a table, a column Select the most
any other way? graph, and a picture effective way to
graph show their
This indicator chart allows secondary teachers to see the achievements that many
students may have made with respect to investigations in primary school. Diagnostic
activities can then be used to determine year 7 students’ levels of experience. The
secondary indicators chart can be used to illustrate the wide range of primary English,
Maths and Science skill development required in secondary science investigations.
At the primary school level science investigations offer an ideal opportunity for
integration across the key learning areas. In formulating testable questions, planning
investigations, gathering data, examining evidence and communicating findings, students
apply information skills, measurement skills, graphing skills and develop their writing by
writing for many different purposes.
The teachers in this study found that investigations and design-and-make activities can
complement learning in the Human Society and Environment key learning area. One
teacher devised activities derived from studying Antarctica. Another teacher developed
activities to complement studies on South-East Asian Culture. The science lessons were
part of a broader theme. The third primary teacher was teaching science in a relief from
face-to-face role and found that offering science activities in distinct timeslots reduced
flexibility and limited student exploration.
Team members noted the interaction between design-and-make activities and
investigations. Each type of activity could generate a need for the other. Students
studying South-East Asian culture designed boats, which led to a plan for investigating
flotation of different materials. This created a need for a measuring device, which
students then could design and make.
Student investigations generate a multitude of questions. All teachers commented on this.
How teachers treat these questions in the classroom is a key issue in fostering curiosity
and developing student investigation skills. Some questions require explanations; other
questions are an opportunity to lead into new investigations. The challenge for teachers
and students is to narrow down the area of interest to produce a testable question.
Several of the resources used in this study scaffold this process. Teachers who used the
planning resources modified them to suit the ages of the students and the degree of
support required. Various points of view were encountered in this project as to when
students can deal with the idea of an hypothesis. The teachers in this study found that
students of all ages can become overly focused with the idea that their hypothesis must
be ‘correct’. Teachers need to set a climate in which the function of the hypothesis is
made clear. It is there to refine thinking and lead to the design of a procedure. This is
one of the more challenging aspects for students of all ages and needs to be valued in its
There is general agreement that students need to encounter modelled and guided work in
all stages of a scientific investigation. While students are learning the investigation
process, activities that use simple materials and familiar measuring devices allow students
to focus on the process without confusion. As one primary teacher put it: ‘It is obvious
that if students are involved in the investigation process from early stage one, then by
stage three and beyond they would be able to conduct independent investigations.’
The team found that problem-based scenarios were very powerful ways of introducing
concepts and developing investigations.
Resource management remains an issue for primary schools. The organisation and sheer
amount of time that must be put into ‘fetching and carrying’ in order to set up an
investigation in some non-specialist primary classrooms can only be admired. A do-it-
yourself approach, using experiment kits and modelled on Scitech’s ‘task in a box’, is one
solution. The challenge is to ensure that the tasks developed lead to an investigation,
rather than to an illustration.
Perceived time constraints were an issue for secondary classrooms. Students take much
more time to plan and modify their own investigations than to follow an illustrative
example. This means that less conceptual material is presented to students in class time,
but the vast majority of students find the investigation approach engaging and
motivating. This was confirmed in three surveys, carried out with over 200 students at
the high school, and in the excellent application to the year 10 student research projects.
The materials and strategies discovered, developed and implemented during this project
will be used within the schools involved to develop and refine science teaching.
The secondary indicators chart, based on the New South Wales syllabus, is central to this
process. If these are the indicators that are expected to be seen in students, what
assessment is needed? This assessment will need to be summative, formative and
diagnostic. In the light of these assessment methods, what teaching and learning activities
will be needed? These questions are the science faculty’s focus.
Two useful frameworks in the implementation are the New South Wales Quality
Teaching Model and the five Es approach to Science. The latter takes a learning cycle
approach, with the five Es representing stages of learning in which the students ‘engage,
explore, explain, extend and evaluate’.
The importance of whole faculty involvement cannot be overstressed. Science teaching
to enhance scientific literacy is a complex and demanding task. At the same time, it is
intriguing, enjoyable and rewarding.
The enthusiasm, generosity and support of many people have made this project possible.
My particular thanks to these individuals and groups who gave up so much of their time
to assist with this project:
Dr Kerry Ayre, Secretary, Illawarra Science Teachers’ Association
Paul Fleay, Manager, Scitech, Perth
Dr Mark Hackling, Edith Cowan University
Colin Hadfield, Mount Ousley Primary School
Leeann Hudson, Wollongong Primary School
Janelle Russell, Wollongong Primary School
Julie Sheppard, President, Science Teachers Association of Western Australia
Nadine Smith, Professional Development Officer, Kids Science State
Faculty Members, Keira High School
Faculty Members, Merredin High School.
A resource CD is under development and is expected to be available by mid July, 2005.
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Science, 50(4), pp. 16–21.
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science in Australian schools, Canberra. Department of Education, Training and Youth
Hackling, M. Working scientifically: Implementing and assessing open investigations in science. At
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Kids Science State (2004). Working scientifically through open investigations, Scitech, Perth.
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NSW Department of Education and Training, Ryde.
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Science and Problem Solving Skills. At
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Science Education Assessment Resources (2005). At
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