‘I’d be quite happy not to have textbooks in schools’:PM’s prize winner

Brett McKay, a science teacher who is going to receive the PM’s prize for excellence in science teaching in secondary schools?? is pictured at Kirrawee High School with students on 16 October, 2017. Photo: Brook MitchellIn the past three years, so many students have started choosing science subjects for their HSC that Kirrawee High School has run out of laboratories.
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The school, in Sydney’s south, is going to start bringing in “portable trolleys”, or mobile science labs, so that students in regular classrooms can keep doing experiments, head teacher of science Brett McKay said.

About 60 per cent of Kirrawee High’s year 12 students are about to sit at least one HSC science exam, and a slightly higher proportion of year 11 students are studying one or more science subjects, Mr McKay said.

However, the real surprise came when year 10 students recently made their HSC subject choices.

“About 140 kids [or 70 per cent of the cohort] are doing a science,” Mr McKay said.

“We were shocked when we saw that, there will be three extra classes next year.”

Mr McKay, 50, has been recognised for his work in inspiring students to pursue science as this year’s recipient of the Prime Minister’s prize for excellence in science teaching in secondary schools, presented in Canberra on Wednesday.

Mr McKay said he led the push to promote science subjects at the school when he was appointed head teacher about three years ago by bringing in an array of practical opportunities for students.

“We started by sending some girls to the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor and they learnt that science wasn’t what they thought it was,” he said.

“When they came back we made them spokespeople for science. When students get that passion, they feed it on to others.

“And new activities mean students have got a buzz about them, and then the year below goes, ‘Oh yeah, we want to go to that’.”

Students from the school have also had the chance to work with CSIRO astronomers and control the Parkes radio telescope, and participate in competitions such as a recent forensics problem-solving challenge.

Science teachers have also started taking a more hands-on approach to teaching within the classroom.

“We’re making bionic hands out of straws and we use [toy] flying pigs to talk about circular motion,” Mr McKay said.

“We do experiments with things like ice, where you see if it melts faster on something cold or warm and then work out why it’s happening.

“By actually doing it they have the knowledge in a much more solid way and in the long term.”

He said his aim in bringing different programs to the school is to “give [students] as broad a range of opportunities as possible”.

“Their passion might not be what I’m passionate about … I’m constantly picking out different activities so students can follow the paths they’re interested in,” Mr McKay said.

His advice to other teachers is to “take [science] away from being an elitist subject”.

“It’s not about the textbook, it’s about what students are interested in,” Mr McKay said. “I’d be quite happy not to have textbooks in schools.”

Mr McKay decided to become a teacher after spending a year after university as an industrial chemist and said his favourite part of the job is “seeing [students’] faces light up when it clicks”.

He has been teaching at Kirrawee High for 20 years and also works with country schools to advise HSC science teachers.

Mr McKay has also been involved in providing feedback to the NSW Education Standards Authority ahead of the release of new HSC science syllabuses.