Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Lessons from Abroad

By Stephen Luntz

After teaching science in developing countries, Scott Daniel has returned home to develop teaching strategies for large class sizes here.

Scott Daniel’s interest in science teaching has taken him to some unusual places, such as Pentecost, the island of Vanuatu where the predecessor of bungee jumping began, and Namibian schools where elephants drunk on fermented fruit sometimes wonder through the grounds. He’s now working on a PhD that may assist science teachers in such locations as well as lecturers closer to home.

Daniel says he was “always interested in science”. He constantly wanted to find out more about the world and would sometimes conduct experiments so unwise that afterwards he would tell himself “curiosity killed the Scott”. One such occasion came when he was racing down the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro on a mountain bike and wondered if the brake pads were getting hot. He burnt his finger finding out, and spent the rest of the journey splashing water over the pads and watching it evaporate from the intense heat.

The same thirst for knowledge and new experiences has driven Daniel to travel a lot, as well as studying everything from science to Russian. Daniel’s undergraduate major at Macquarie University was in physics, which he says he chose because “it is the essential science that underpins the others”. He followed this up with a teaching degree, also at Macquarie University, and then the Graduate Diploma in Science Communication at the Australian National University and the National Science Museum, Questacon.

The Grad Dip has students performing science shows and explaining science exhibits in rural and regional Australia. One of Daniel’s tours took him to the Torres Strait, where he describes the limited facilities in schools as an “eye-opener”.

Daniel subsequently worked as a volunteer in Vanuatu, where he said the facilities available were so much lower again that the events formed a “double eye-opener”.

“When I was at Questacon we worked on teaching with minimal assumptions about equipment. However, when I got to Vanuatu I was told that some schools didn’t even have scrap paper, so we started looking for alternatives, like using banana leaves.”

Vanuatu offered plenty of other experiences though. Daniel kayaked between the islands, including spending a night as the only person on an active volcano. He also visited a more active volcano and had a ball of hot rock shoot into the air above him and some friends. Desperately trying to calculate the trajectory, the group scrambled away and had a rock he describes as “the size of an icebox” land where they had been sitting. He scraped off the crust with another stone and the glowing heat inside burnt the hair on the back of his hands.

Daniel went with another aid project to Namibia, and was allocated to the Caprivi Strip in the north. Typical class sizes were of 50 students, and some were as large as 70. “My predecessor had produced these small versions of science exhibits that would fit in house tubs. We could fit 40 in the back of a ute, for example a tiny periscope or a lever with which a small weight could lift a large one.”

His travels took Daniel to an island at the confluence of the Zambezi and Chode Rivers. Here four nations meet, and Daniel met students who could not leave the island because they could not afford to hire the expensive boats required to sail upriver to towns in Namibia where they could get official papers. Without these papers they were unable to enter the surrounding countries via the cheaper ferries. Many of the older people Daniel encountered had gone to school before independence, when teaching was done by South African soldiers who brought their guns to class.

In the face of such isolation and poverty, Daniel organised science fairs and drove regional winners to the capital to compete against students from schools that still enjoyed the benefits of the funding available to white education facilities during the Apartheid years. “I tried to teach them how to be rigorous in their science experiments,” he says. “Lots of kids had never been out of their region before. It was great to support the underdog, and in a couple of cases see them win. But it was also great to see the connections made between kids who were keen on science with those from very different backgrounds.”

Daniel is now based at Swinburne University where he is doing a PhD on teaching physics to large groups of people whether they are the sort of class sizes he encountered in Namibia or university lecture theaters. “In Malawi the average class size is 110,” he says. “The teaching strategy you might use otherwise is non-viable so I am looking at the approaches one can use to get around that.”

Other aspects of the PhD include exploring attempts to copy innovators who have come up with their own solutions to dealing with such challenging conditions.