Making science accessible to young people

After completing a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science and a Master of Teaching, Dr Joe Ferguson started doing some relief teaching in secondary schools around Melbourne. Then he saw an advertisement for a PhD scholarship with Professor Russell Tytler at Deakin University. Professor Tytler is renowned for his work in the field of representation construction — an approach to teaching and learning science that involves students constructing a variety of representations to actively explore and understand scientific concepts. Joe decided that he had more to offer by doing research and working with pre-service and in-service teachers than working as a teacher in the school classroom. Here he talks about his career path and the impact of his work on students and teachers.

Have you always wanted to pursue the kind of career you have embarked on?

My parents always encouraged me to follow my interests, and that is what I have done. After finishing high school, I had an interest in science but also in the arts so I decided on a double degree and then when I was thinking about a career, I decided to try teaching. My dad, who passed away in 2014, was a Professor of Accounting and Business Information Systems at the University of Melbourne and a great inspiration to me in pursuing a career as a teacher and academic.

After I completed my PhD I stayed on at Deakin as a Research Fellow within Deakin’s Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Environmental (STEME) Education Research Group working in the field of representation construction with a focus on creativity. In the classroom context we explore how to support students to be creative in science. I have also done quite a bit of work over the last couple of years with Dr George Aranda around computational thinking, exploring programming and how kids can engage in programming not just through using devices, but through what's called unplugged programming, which is programming without using a computer through drawing diagrams and flow charts. I am also increasingly working with STEME colleagues and in particular Dr Peta White to research and write with youth climate activists.

In 2020, I worked on the Science Teacher Toolkit with Professor Russell Tytler and Dr Peta White. The Victorian Department of Education and Training wanted some research that could inform the development of a tool kit to help teachers to teach science in more inclusive and engaging ways. It’s an example of research informing policy in addition to having impact at the grassroots level.

Does your work involve Bachelor of Education students at Deakin?

I have been fortunate to find a balance between doing research and working with pre-service teachers at Deakin. For the past few years I have been teaching primary science and environmental education.

Representation construction is used in our work with pre-service teachers. Deakin students learn that there are different ways to understand and communicate ideas about a particular topic and that one of their roles as a teacher of science is to work with their students to develop an understanding of concepts through different representation forms, for example a diagram or a role play.

How do teachers benefit from your work?

There are certain things that teachers have to teach and assess their students on, but the Australian Curriculum doesn't dictate how they do that. For example, the solar system can be taught in different ways to different aged children.

We give teachers effective ways to teach science. We work with a network of schools that are involved in different projects over time. Over the course of a three-year project, teachers will develop and refine their teaching, for example, around the representation construction model of teaching science. They can further develop those skills in the next project and their knowledge builds. The hope is that they then engage with their colleagues and share that with the school community.

The focus is on working with individual teachers to build their capacity to work with their colleagues and move the whole teaching group forward. It’s not about one person, it’s about the culture, so we try to run workshops at the school, create websites and disseminate our findings as widely as possible. It's really challenging to do that in a way that's accessible and sustainable.

What is the impact of your work on the community?

The work that I'm involved in is very much concerned with making science more accessible to young people. It's important for them to understand and become involved in science not only because it prepares them well for future work, but it also puts them in a position to be citizens who can take action in informed ways — whether it's understanding the impact of climate change or how vaccines work.

Our aim is to induct more young people into science in ways that are meaningful for them so that they can benefit themselves, their families, and the community.

What has been a highlight of your career so far?

I've been lucky to work with great people in the Deakin STEME group and within REDI. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with people who are so invested and passionate about science education. We are bringing together lots of different perspectives and ideas that enrich the work we can do. That is what spurs me on.