2009 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in Primary Schools

Mr Allan Whittome

Living Science

Badgingarra Primary School is perched on a hill three hours north of Perth, looking out across fields of canola and wheat. The approach to the school is lined with sculptures of native animals and a model of the Solar System made in limestone, set amongst native plants. In the classroom the students are fine-tuning model racing cars they’ve designed and manufactured online. All this is due to the work of Allan Whittome.

In Allan’s classes the students live with the science - experiencing it and playing with it every day.

The school has embraced science and the investigative process. Students engage in science by choice - designing their own investigations, questioning ‘why?’ and formulating new or reaffirming answers to those questions.

Students participate in competitions, awards programs and community projects including the NATA Young Scientist of the Year awards, the Earthwatch Teachlive Whale Sharks of Ningaloo project, Community Hydrogen Fuel Vehicle Challenge and the F1in Schools program.

For his achievements in engaging young students in science Allan Whittome receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in Primary Schools.

Allan Whittome farms wheat and sheep. He has a deep understanding of the land and the role of science in his farming and his custodianship of the land. And he’s a teacher. From architecture at university he turned to design, technology and science teaching. The two have come together in his role as science teacher at Badgingarra Primary School.

Allan believes that primary science should be all about the experience, not about ‘teaching’. One of his favourite quotes is by Nancy Rothwell, "Trying to teach science without practical experience is akin to trying to teach art without any drawing or painting."

His students rush off the school bus in the morning, eager to get to class and start working on model racing cars, feeding the yabbies, warming lizards, rehabilitating the local stream, working in the tree nursery and much more. "If you’ve got a willing audience you must be halfway there," he says.

To quote his school principal, "Allan ensures that the science program is integrated into the whole curriculum and is not seen as a subject in isolation. Consequently the children see science as a part of life and not just something that is done at school."

Allan believes it is important to teach the students to back up their ideas, to create repeatable experiments and expose their thinking and their solutions to peer review within and outside the classroom.

Two projects involving model cars illustrate Allan’s thinking at work.

Students start with carbon dioxide powered cars. They make and race their own model dragsters - learning about traction and stability and weight. With each coat of paint weighing five grams they have to balance look and speed. It’s hard to beat the lightest car.

The F1 in Schools project takes the students further. Badgingarra was the first primary school in Australia to join this international initiative. The students design their own cars in the classroom using computer aided design and manufacturing software. The code is sent to a manufacturing centre and two precisely machined models are returned. The students then have to work to half a millimetre’s tolerance to finish off their cars-painting, fitting wheels and the carbon dioxide power source.

"They can’t do it by themselves, they can’t wing it, they need to get guidance," says Allan. "The project teaches them to work in teams, and to get advice from outside the school."

Asked for his most significant achievement, he focuses on his students, "What matters to me is that the students want to come to school. In the morning they’ll run off the bus to get to class. And the students are keen to stay back to work on projects. They continue to question and critically analyse to formulate their own understandings and points of view."

Allan has made sure the resources are there for the job. He’s developed links with a wide range of industry and government partners including TiWest, Griffin Energy and the WA agriculture department.

His message for other primary school teachers? "Many primary teachers have a perception that science is hard to teach. They remember their own high school science with its textbooks and a focus on learning the facts. But primary science isn’t like that. It’s something that the kids can experience day to day and can question in the classroom. Primary school science is easy and fun to teach. And it can act like mortar holding the other learning together and giving it a purpose."

Allan has been spreading the word in his local cluster of primary schools. He’s frequently demonstrating new ideas and projects with them and helping them find the resources needed for the job. And in this International Year of Astronomy, his peers have been rising to the challenge. Throughout the region there have been star nights and other astronomy activities.

Allan says his future is in the classroom, "My job satisfaction all comes from the students and their learning plus being able to learn along with them." But he’s also keen to extend his outreach to fellow teachers. "I want to use the web more - using wikis and discussion groups to share ideas and encouraging primary teachers across Western Australia to bring science to life in the classroom." "Modern technologies now mean we don't have to be isolated because we are rural, we can be connected and support each other."

Qualifications

  • 2002 Level Three Classroom Teacher Western Australia
  • 1995 Advanced Skills Teacher (Senior Teacher)
  • 1979 Associate Diploma Industrial Design, Western Australian Institute Of Technology
  • 1974 Teachers Certificate Western Australia 

Career highlights, awards, fellowships and grants

  • 2009   Earthwatch Teach Live Whale sharks of Ningaloo Woodside teacher scholarship
  • 2008   Science Summer School, Flinders University, South Australia
  • 2007   Premier's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching: Primary
  • 2007 - 2009 Received national grants to hold community events during National Science Week
  • 2007   SiMERR Grant Recipient for CONASTA and ICASE Conference, Perth
  • 2007   Travelled with students and Hydrogen car to Sydney to compete in National Hydrogen Fuel car Challenge
  • 2007   Obtained a grant to hold a community event involving hydrogen fuel cell cars
  • 2007   A winner of Science at the Shine Dome, Science Teacher Award 2007
  • 2006 - 2007 Primary Science Outreach Teacher, Midwest Southern Cluster, Western Australia
  • 2005 - 2006 Obtained grants from Australian Science Teachers Association to run Science Week events
  • 2005   Astronomy WA workshops and camps in Geraldton and Gingin
  • 2005   Western Australian Environmental Education for Sustainability Awards, winner in two categories - Cool Eco - Tool and Greener Schools
  • 2002   Gained Level 3 classroom teacher status
  • 2002   Acting Principal Badgingarra Primary School, Western Australia
  • 2000 - 2007 Science Teacher, Badgingarra Primary School, Western Australia
  • 1992 - 1998 Science Specialist Teacher, Eneabba Primary School, Western Australia
  • 1979 - 1984 Science and Design and Technology Teacher, Beverley District High, Western Australia
  • 1975 - 1976 Science and Design and Technology Teacher, Northampton District High, Western Australia

Personal highlights

  • Swimming with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef as part of Woodside Earth Watch Teachlive program while using the web to teach the class at the same time.
  • Science at the Shine Dome Teachers Award and the CONASTA and ICASE conference in Perth, meeting Howard Gardiner and Robert Winston.
  • Being a part of the WA Primary Science Project and the great network it has created
  • Part of mineral sands industry working group developing curriculum materials - The Colour Makers - used by the Chamber of Minerals and in Western Australian schools
  • Successful in achieving sponsorship from Griffin Energy to develop hydrogen education within school and local cluster
  • Successful in achieving sponsorship for the F1 in Schools program and for neighbouring schools to take part in the CO2 dragsters in schools from local mining companies
  • In 2007, established the Midwest Science Outreach group on Edna to allow easy access and sharing of resources by other teachers in the region and to allow blogs to be used for moderation of student work
  • In 2005 - 2006, formed a partnership with Ti West (mineral sand mine) to strengthen science within the Badgingarra Primary School, with Ti West funding used to improve science literacy.
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