While presenting a significant challenge to education in Australia in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many teachers and STEM professionals finding creative ways to continue to collaborate safely and virtually – with some unexpected benefits.
One such partnership was between PhD student Vivasha Govinden from UNSW, and Julie Tritsch and Ms Drishti Nanwani from Emanuel Primary in Sydney. The school hosted its first ever Innovation Festival in late 2020, and invited Vivasha and a team from her workplace at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) to take part in the event via Zoom.
Presenting to students from kindergarten through to Year 7, Vivasha and her colleagues showed a video that shared insight into what a career in innovation might look like, and how FLEET works to solve issues around energy consumption in computing. This was followed by a series of experiments that the students could run themselves in the classroom with their teacher while Vivasha watched on from the screen.
"It was a little different and still a challenge not being there in person, particularly for hands-on activities, but one silver lining I observed was that it boosted the students’ confidence doing the science themselves, rather than being passive observers," said Vivasha.
They also ensured the experiments utilised materials that could easily be sourced in the classroom or at home. The students enjoyed mixing colours between water glasses using paper towels to demonstrate capillary action, using refraction to make a coin suddenly appear, bending pictures using light and water, and creating rainbow marbling in milk.
"The students realised that you don’t necessarily need sophisticated laboratory equipment to do science," said Vivasha. “One can do science with pretty much anything, and it isn't limited to lab experiments. Science is all about a mindset; that curiosity that triggers the question 'why does this happen this way?'
"I've also come to appreciate that what a STEM professional might think is a mundane thing, say, working with liquid nitrogen - kids find amazing! Seeing one's profession from another perspective is great; it brings another dimension to work. Outreach can be very satisfying."
The teachers also enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with industry while at the same time supporting several learning areas from the Australian Curriculum.
"The activities touched on learning areas including the characteristics and effects of common forms of energy such as light, explored materials that can be changed or combined, and how the properties of materials determine their use," said Julie.
"The Innovation Festival was a great chance to see some cool experiments, learn about the science behind them and understand what it would look like to study innovation at university. The STEM professionals were so knowledgeable and passionate about these experiments and were able to relate them to our real lives so easily.
"Despite COVID-19 and all the restrictions that came with it, we still managed to put together a really incredible event."