As a secondary school science teacher at Dubbo School of Distance Education, Malak Dubois faces specific challenges. With classes held largely one-on-one online — or by phone where the internet is unavailable — school is a very different experience for her as a teacher, as well as for her students. One of the biggest challenges, she said, is enabling collaboration. However, because collaboration is an important part of teaching STEM, Ms Dubois has had to come up with some creative solutions for her students, with some help from the STEM X Academy.

The ideas Ms Dubois gained from STEM X 2017 inspired her to redesign her teaching program to better suit her distance students and enable them to work together in new ways. Rather than teaching through straight comprehension — providing written materials and questions — Ms Dubois has engaged her students in more hands-on activities. In teaching about ecosystems, she was even able to include an element of collaboration. “I had students make a video game — each of them doing a different level so all together they had a final product,” she said.

By re-creating an ecosystem through a video game, Ms Dubois said they learnt on a deeper level than if they had simply read about the topic. “They actually learnt the process of how organisms interact, which is more important to me, and a more adaptable skill, than just learning definitions and memorising what an ecosystem is,” she said.

By having to program the different elements of the game, the students also learnt how to code. “And they also learnt how to be resilient because they had never done computer programming before,” she said. Another project, inspired by the STEM X Questacon ‘protostorming’ session, involved her students learning about motion by making a Rube Goldberg machine from everyday objects, which put their knowledge into practice. “Because a Rube Goldberg machine — named after a cartoonist famous for drawing devices that performed simple tasks in convoluted ways — can take any form, it allowed the students to explore ideas and experiment without limits and without having to reach ‘right’ answers,” she said.

Learning by doing is the essence of scientific study, and as a result of STEM X Ms Dubois now has the confidence to embrace that approach in her teaching. “As soon as I left STEM X I decided to change the way I do science,” she said. “What I now try to emphasise to my students is that the reading and answering is not what science is all about. Science is about trying and failing and retrying. So with the Rube Goldberg machine, some students didn’t get to a final product, but that wasn’t a failure because they were challenged every single day to make something.”

Ms Dubois will continue to refine her program and bring in new initiatives through collaboration with other STEM X alumni who she maintains contact with through the Alumni’s Facebook page. “We bounce ideas off each other and it’s inspiring because you see people doing awesome things around Australia and you think, ‘I’ve got to do awesome stuff, too’.”