Hands-on teaching: one rock at a time

Thursday 19 January 2017

I am passionate about hands-on science and my Twitter is #therealclassroom to symbolise that.

SUZY URBANIAK, BSc Geol (Hons) ’87, is passionate about taking her students out of the classroom and is surprised how little teaching styles have changed over the years.

I had an absolutely amazing time at ANU. The size of the Geology Department was a huge bonus – it was not too big – so we all were able to get to know each other really well. We worked collaboratively and supported each other, it was a wonderful experience.
I loved the campus. I loved the fact you could go to the mountains in winter and the beach in summer, it’s an ideal location.
I studied geology because I knew in primary school I wanted to be a geologist. I always had a love of rocks – to me, every rock tells a story – but more than that, I had a great curiosity about how the Earth worked.
I worked as a geologist for about 10 years and then moved to teaching, which combines both my passions – science and education.
In Western Australia there has been a shortage of home-grown talent in engineering and science but we need these skilled people as the minerals and energy industry expands. However, there was no awareness in the school system of this shortage. In secondary schools, earth sciences was either taken for granted or not even taught.
It was quite contradictory that this wasn’t acknowledged, considering Western Australia is one of the resources hot spots of the world.
I come from Melbourne and I had a teacher who liked and taught earth sciences, so I was very fortunate to go to a school that actually did that.
My Year 11 and 12 field trips were something that I do remember well of my school years but unfortunately, science was rote-learned and there was very little hands-on science, it was taught out of a text book.
That’s why my philosophy of teaching is all about having young scientists in the classroom, doing hands-on investigations, in a real context, in a real world application, so students in high school, from Year 7 on, can actually learn the science to explain the phenomena that is around them.
I am passionate about hands-on science and my Twitter is #therealclassroom to symbolise that.
I’ve taken my students on about 50 field trips, from Shark Bay to Esperance and other places in Western Australia, and then interstate and internationally, to Hawaii and Norway and Iceland.
In education, we have to move past the notion that ‘science’ is now either physics or chemistry or human biology or environmental science – science is science and these strands of science can be integrated.
Students need to understand how they can transfer their skills and understanding across those so-called boundaries.
The scientific understanding that my students have is assessed through their verbal expression and other forms of technological media.
There is a lot more that they can show than can be expressed in rote-learning exam questions.
I am very passionate that they should no longer be judged purely on an external exam. I really feel that gauging a level of achievement based on rote-learning questions belongs to a bygone era.
That method means the need to express scientific understanding and theory in context has been lost.
My students understand volcanos, they’re not learning chemistry equations for the sake of learning how to balance equations.
In addition to the skills and content knowledge, I’m very passionate about developing my students’ enterprise skills, in particular networking.
In fact, they start to network with industry from the Year 10 level.
After they leave school, I keep in contact with them, on Facebook.
I encourage them to go to regional areas to get jobs and I’m happy to say all my students from 2015 have found work in the industry.

Suzy Urbaniak won awards for geology as an undergraduate, worked as a geologist for Newcrest Mining for almost a decade, and won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

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