For Nathan Curnow, attending the inaugural STEM X program in 2016 was just the beginning of a professional journey that would see his teaching — and career — transformed, largely through the people he met.
“Connecting to these people, who are leaders in their field and doing really wonderful, amazing things, has real power to transform practice,” said Mr Curnow, now the associate head of science at John Curtin College of the Arts. “It’s a chance to see inside their heads and their classrooms, to have your pedagogy shaped by them and also help shape theirs.”
“This type of engagement with people from both the STEM and education sectors is essential,” he said, “because as a ‘lone agent’ in the classroom, teaching can be an isolating experience. Not only did it provide opportunities to better understand STEM with wonderful hands-on activities, but it also allowed us to connect with people who are like-minded in that they are driven and motivated to help students be better prepared for their futures.”
And thanks to the connections sparked by STEM X, these opportunities to learn from each other continue to grow beyond the workshop itself. “It’s not just what you do during the week, it’s what you get after it, and that’s its real power,” he said.
Through a dedicated Facebook page, an ASTA-hosted wiki and personal contacts made through the workshop, Mr Curnow has continued to develop his STEM teaching program. “More than a network, STEM X alumni from all around Australia have created a true ‘community of practice’ where ideas are exchanged on best practice and lead to tangible improvements in the classroom,” he said.
“I’ve now got a community of people who I can throw an idea out to and get some critical and constructive feedback that helps improve what I do,” he said. “Plus, I get a chance to contribute the things I have learnt and developed.”
So influential has this experience been that it has dramatically changed Mr Curnow’s methods and approach to teaching in just 18 months. “STEM X reminded me of all those things that make science really powerful and really fun, which is based in the four Cs: critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration and communication,” he said. “I now design activities through the lens of those four Cs to engage students in a meaningful way, developing critical, creative thinking to solve problems.”
When teaching minerals, for example, he might use a real-world context, and have students develop tools and prototypes to test in a simulated mining environment.
Now, a lauded and awarded science teacher himself, Mr Curnow’s passion for STEM has helped his school receive a Western Australian Governor’s School STEM Award, has seen him speak at several conferences and run professional development workshops through the WA Department of Education.
“I feel emboldened, and a lot of that came from working with such a fantastic group of people through STEM X,” he said. “I wouldn’t be in a position to support teachers if I hadn’t had that opportunity first.”