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Primary matters - Issue 15 - STEM, September 2018

All about STEM

Welcome to the September issue of Primary Matters. In this edition, we explore how Penrhos College (WA) developed STEM skills in the early years beginning with a focus on Science and how Gordon Primary School (ACT) collaborated with the Centre for Innovation and Learning (ACT) to develop a strong culture of thinking and inquiry in STEM. We hope you enjoy reading this newsletter.

ACARA’s STEM Connections project

In this case study, Nathan Ducker, Learning Technologies Coordinator at Penrhos College Junior School (Perth), shares how the all-girls school engaged students in STEM education, beginning with a focus on Science. The result of the school’s efforts was international recognition and the ‘Governor’s Schools STEM Award’ in both primary and secondary divisions.

The first thing our leadership team did was choose STEM as a strategic priority for our teaching and learning. We developed a K–6 scope and sequence for Science Understanding, with the Technologies and Mathematics curricula content identified as ‘best fit’ opportunities for student learning.

pedagogical change was our participation in an initiative called AMPLIFY, run by the Association of Independent Schools WA (AISWA) and Innovation Unit, Australia. The aim of participating was to increase student engagement in learning through the development of teaching, learning and assessment practices. (AISWA, 2018: )

We began by investigating STEM-specific pedagogies (including design thinking models) to enhance student learning in Science through inquiry. That was when we met Lee Watanabe-Crockett, a founder and president of Global Digital Citizen Foundation, who introduced us to the ‘Essential Fluencies’.

Lee Watanabe-Crockett, founder and president of Global Digital Citizen Foundation, introduced the students to the ‘Essential Fluencies’ of innovative learning

The Essential Fluencies foster the development of the general capabilities

The ‘Essential Fluencies’ are a structured process for developing the skills that students need to succeed, today and in the future. These include solution fluency, information fluency, creativity fluency, media fluency, collaboration fluency and global digital citizenship.

We focused on the general capabilities that emerged naturally when our students began to use the ‘Essential Fluencies’. We could see our students absorbing new knowledge, asking questions, collaborating and communicating.

Our Year 1 teachers investigated how teaching Science could be enhanced by a shift in pedagogy and emphasis on developing the general capabilities. The teachers used Lee’s design thinking model ‘Solution Fluency’ and some of the 10 Shifts of Practice to engage students in their learning, while developing world-changing habits and attitudes as a result of scientific inquiry.

Students learnt about the Solution Fluency stages by defining the key word for each stage:

  • define
  • discover
  • dream
  • design
  • deliver

They used this model to enhance their critical thinking and to generate and apply solutions in the learning area of Science. 

Year 1 students define each stage of design thinking model Solution Fluency

As part of the Year 1 Science curriculum requirements, students are required to identify features and needs of living things. The teachers invited local zoologist, Mandy Bamford, to assist with investigations into native habitats of the local area. Student engagement increased to another level when, in addition to her expertise and field experience, Mandy brought in a native long-necked turtle for the girls to look after, and to record observations.


Zoologist Mandy Bamford brought in a native long-necked turtle for the girls to look after and to record observations

Giving students the opportunity to name the turtle began the development of a positive and beautiful relationship between the students and the turtle. The students named her ‘Rocky’.


Rocky was rescued from the road as a hatchling and she will be released back into the wild when large enough to ensure her best chance for survival

Applying Lee Watanabe-Crockett’s design thinking model ‘Solution Fluency’

1. Define: The first stage in the Solution Fluency design thinking model involved students seeking out a real-world problem that meant something to them. Students identified that long-necked turtles and many other native species were under threat. Teachers led students to develop their own question, ‘How best can we help long-necked turtles survive?’

Students unpack the question; ‘How best can we help long-necked turtles survive?’

2. Discover: The second stage involved students learning as much as possible about their topic and the problem they had defined. It was a real-life opportunity for Science inquiry skills to be developed. Caring for Rocky required daily monitoring and recording of observations using checklists and observation sheets. Mandy assisted the girls to measure Rocky to be able to compare and discuss her growth (which provided opportunities to develop mathematics skills such as estimating, weight and measurement and recording units of measure). Students also conducted internet research and developed reports for their ‘Talk for Writing’ literacy activities.


Caring for Rocky, students use a daily checklist and record observations

Effective, age-appropriate visual methods to construct new knowledge

Through the implementation of the Solution Fluency thinking model, students learnt about classification and planning for research. Student engagement shifted to an even higher level when they set out to research long-necked turtles and discover current threats and solutions to help. Students took control of their learning, forming teams to research, using a mode of their choice. In just one morning and with minimal teacher assistance, the teams constructed detailed posters, information display mobiles and even taught themselves to make informative PowerPoint presentations.


Teams share their learning using a presentation method of their choice

3. Dream: The next stage involved students dreaming and imagining a range of possibilities for a solution. The students set out to identify solutions to make a difference. They developed a genuine appreciation for animals and their natural habitats, and after learning that many species were under threat, they were determined to help.

4. Design: This was the stage where some of the dreams were put into action. The students video-recorded a proposal to the Head and Deputy Head of the Junior School to create and market reusable bags (which coincided with current initiatives to abolish single-use plastic bags) with a message to help protect native animals such as the long-necked turtle.

5. Deliver: The stage where students carried out their idea. The Year 1 students put their plan into action and sourced options for bags, with the help of their Arts teacher (who taught girls how to add a message to a bag). Students sourced opportunities to sell the bags, with profits going to action groups to save local native turtle species.


Students contacted various suppliers for information to assist in selecting the ‘best-value’ bag manufacturing option. Students were so proud of their solution and presented Lee Watanabe-Crockett with one of the reusable bags to show appreciation for his inspiration and guidance in shifting education practice at Penrhos College Junior School.

6. Debrief: This was the final stage in Solution Fluency design thinking model. After the students delivered their solution, they reflected on the questions: ‘What was great about this solution?’ and ‘This solution would be even better if…?’

Curriculum links


Science Understanding

Biological sciences

 Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

  • Science involves observing, asking questions about, and describing changes in, objects and events (ACSHE021 - Scootle )
  • People use science in their daily lives, including when caring for their environment and living things (ACSHE022 - Scootle )

 Science Inquiry Skills

 Questioning and predicting

  • Pose and respond to questions, and make predictions about familiar objects and events (ACSIS024 - Scootle )

 Planning and conducting

  • Participate in guided investigations to explore and answer questions (ACSIS025 - Scootle )
  • Use informal measurements to collect and record observations, using digital technologies as appropriate (ACSIS026 - Scootle )

 Processing and analysing data and information

  • Use a range of methods to sort information, including drawings and provided tables and through discussion, compare observations with predictions (ACSIS027 - Scootle )



 General capabilities links:

 Ethical Understanding in Science

  • Understanding ethical concepts and issues

 Personal and Social Capability in Science

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Social management

Integrating Science, Technologies and Mathematics

The Centre for Innovation and Learning works across ACT public schools to upskill and inspire teachers to develop strong cultures of thinking and inquiry in STEM. Such was the case in this collaborative project developed between the Centre and Gordon Primary School.

Using the Australian Curriculum and the General capabilities as a framework, Year 3/4 teacher Melissa Bissett and pedagogical leader Paula Taylor from the innovation centre planned, scoped and sequenced integrated lessons that were both engaging and authentic. The pair developed a series of lessons aligned to the Australian Curriculum, using the ‘backward by design’ method. Students were to design and develop a ‘thermos’ that would be able to keep water hot for as long as possible, using the engineering cycle. The intention of the project was three-fold by including the following cross-curricular links:

  • Years 3/4 Science: Physical sciences
  • Understanding of Science Inquiry Skills and Science as a Human Endeavour
  • Years 3/4 Technologies curriculum: collecting and interpreting data and sharing the data online and face-to-face
  • Years 3/4 Mathematics curriculum related to data representation and interpretation.


Students predicted what materials retained heat for the longest time

Students tested predictions using temperature data loggers to draw new conclusions

The lessons alternated between the Centre and the school. Students conducted experiments to test materials, gather temperature data using data loggers, share and interpret the data using Excel and Google Classrooms, and repeat this cycle each time new materials and designs were explored.

Ms Bissett said that the integrated unit, real-life inquiry process and the hands-on nature of the activities resulted in a much deeper understanding in the three curriculum areas of Science, Mathematics and Technology.

Details of the lesson plan can be found below:






  • Students receive a design brief letter from the CEO to design a sturdy thermos that keeps water hot.
  • Experimental question: How much heat is lost from a thermos with and without a lid?
  • Students are taught to design an experiment using the scientific method of fair testing.
  • Students test their predictions using data loggers.



  • Students are shown how to plot temperature versus time graphs for both trials (with and without a lid) on same Cartesian plane.
  • The difference of heat loss for each trial is calculated.
  • Students share group results using Google Classroom and learn to discard unreliable data.
  • Students make scientific conclusions based on data.



  • Experimental question: Which is the best material to use for a thermos – glass, metal, styrofoam, plastic?
  • Students order their predictions for four different materials to be tested using the Olympic podium graphic (1st place, 2nd place….)
  • Students test their predictions using data loggers and hot water in four different types of cups using the scientific method of inquiry.



  • Students plot the temperature curves for the four different materials.
  • The difference in heat loss for each cup is calculated and shared using Google Classroom.
  • Students discuss reasons for errors and make conclusions based on reliable data.



  • Using their data and knowledge of materials from previous experiments, students are asked to use any materials available in the Maker Space to work on the design brief.
  • Students work in groups to develop and test several thermos designs, which include various choices for insulating materials.
  • Students use data loggers and the same volume of water with each design.



  • Students use Google Classroom to share their design choices and the temperature loss for each.
  • Students reflect on each other’s data and consider how improvements could be made on their own design. 
  • Students are encouraged to bring from home materials that might aid in their design.



  • Students try to improve on their previous design and test their thermos using data loggers.
  • Students are shown how to draw and label a scientific diagram.
  • Students take photos of their final and best thermos designs.



  • Students communicate their Science Understandings and conclusions in the form of a scientific report on poster paper.  Posters are submitted as a Science project under the Engineering category in the ACT Science and Engineering Fair.

Students exploring data logging