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House of Science: from start-up to sustainable

More schools can now access educational hands-on science kits, thanks to three new House of Science branches launching this year. But how can the branches avoid becoming a flash in the pan?

House of Science branch managers watching a cyclone in a bottle

Back in 2013, biochemist and secondary school science teacher Chris Duggan spotted a chasm-sized gap in science education.

“The stats showed that almost three quarters of students up to Year 9 hadn’t experienced science at school, which I thought was appalling,” she says. ”I also saw that students tended to lose their natural curiosity at high school, and curiosity is a crucial part of science.”

To solve this problem, Chris set up House of Science in Tauranga, with a mission to get science into more primary and intermediate school classrooms and create a lifelong connection with science for high school and beyond.

Kids assembling skeletons

Five years later, House of Science now has eight hubs in the North Island and a vision to keep expanding. Its branches serve schools in the Hutt Valley, Central Wellington, Eastern Bay of Plenty, Western Bay of Plenty and Rotorua, with the three newest serving Central Waikato, South Waikato and West Auckland.

The branches loan the schools themed hands-on science kits with bilingual English and Te Reo Māori instructions. All of the kits are tightly aligned with the national curriculum and many include areas of research being investigated by real scientists, helping to make formal science education current, relevant and engaging – for both students and teachers.

House of Science also provides professional development for teachers who need help in using the kits and gaining confidence around teaching science.

“It’s not about experts coming in and running science classes in schools, which is what teachers think they want,” says Anne Ryan, who manages the Hutt Valley branch. “It’s actually about empowering the teachers so that they can do that.”

Adults trying the kits

The ‘train the trainers’ approach also applies to the regional branches. Instead of each branch being set up by Chris and then handed over, it is up to locals themselves to propose starting and managing a branch in their region. Each branch is established as a charitable trust modelled after the original House of Science centre in Tauranga, but is run independently.

“Rather than just giving them a fish, we’re giving them a rod and teaching them how to fish,” says Dave Tanner, Chair of the House of Science NZ Charitable Trust.

Barbara Johnson, Branch Sustainability Advisor, says that with so many branches being established in a short time, she and Chris have created new tools that are to be used by managers consistently across all the branches, to ensure that all the branches can keep supporting schools for years to come.

Branch managers looking at kit contents

At a two-day hui, the branch managers were introduced to the tools, which included the new website’s booking system for kit requests, tried and tested ways to promote the branch and gain sponsorship, and expert training on how to do accounting for non-profits.

The group also brainstormed ways to measure a kit’s impact on students, resulting in an online survey being created as another tool used across the organisation to monitor student engagement and teacher confidence.

“It’s been great to for us to meet face-to-face and work on problems together, rather than it just being an induction,” says Catherine Frericks, a Hamilton-based geologist who manages the brand new Central Waikato branch.

Branch managers testing a device that lights up when holding hands

It wasn’t all work and no play, though. The managers explored activities from the latest kits created by Resource Developer and Operations Manager Jane Hoggard.

One kit, called ‘Who-diddit?’, is based around investigating a crime scene. Activities include making shoeprints and linking prints with ‘culprits’, analysing spatter patterns when liquid is dropped from different heights and angles, and investigating the properties of ink.

Another kit explored space-related topics, such as how the craters on the Moon were made, while a third focused on aspects of the weather and included a make-your-own hurricane experiment.

Branch managers exploring how Moon craters are madeInstructions and equipment for the Moon craters activity

Chris expects to see more new faces at next year’s hui, as there are at least another three branches already in the pipeline.

“Why are we rolling out all these branches? Because the bigger picture is that it will help raise New Zealand’s national scientific literacy,” she explains.

“You can make better decisions when you can understand the evidence. Even though we’re focused on boosting classroom science, what the students and teachers learn will be shared with their families – creating a knock-on effect across their whole community.”

 Students with fossil fuels science kit

Photos (second, third and last): supplied.

House of Science logoThe sustainable establishment of new House of Science branches has been part-funded by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

Find out more at the House of Science website. 

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Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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