My Chronicle column this month is on one of Australia's star science educators, Geoff McNamara.
Inspiring Our Scientists of the Future, The Chronicle, 2 December 2014
Geoff McNamara had a dreadful experience with science when he was at high school. But it stirred him. As he put it, ‘The empty green-box laboratories and sterile teaching that I grew up with made me want to do better than that for my students, and make science more real and engaging.’
Today, Geoff’s science classroom at Melrose High is known as ‘Mr Mac’s Lab’. It contains a plethora of equipment, including a seismometer, dinosaurs, GPS antenna and spacecraft. Students are encouraged to rigorously test theories against the evidence. For example, one experiment with a mirror and laser allows students to see that they can ‘flex’ a brick wall by pushing on it.
Every fortnight, Geoff brings a new scientist into the classroom. The students are encouraged not just to listen, but to challenge the speaker with their questions – a fundamental principle in scientific inquiry. Former students have ended up studying medicine, plant biology and teaching. Some have joined the ‘I was taught by Mr Mac’ Facebook group.
Meeting Geoff, it’s hard not to be impressed. A former optical mechanic, he has published over 100 articles and three books, on topics such as dark matter, pulsars, and gravitational waves.
This year, Geoff won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools – a first for the ACT. His success is a great reminder that science – taught well – is a fascinating discipline (for my own part, I’m currently trying to get a rudimentary understanding of genetics: a topic that I feel woefully ignorant about).
The success of Geoff McNamara is also testament to the value of encouraging new pathways into teaching. He entered the profession at age 40, about two decades later than the typical teacher. Alternative entry pathways into teaching are useful in ensuring that one of Australia’s most important professions can attract and retain the very best.
Science education is fundamental to our nation’s future. I’m proud that Australia’s best science teacher works right here in Canberra, inspiring the researchers of the future.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.