The Perth Declaration on Science and Technology Education adopted in 2007 alerted about a “widespread lack of student interest in current school science and technology education and of its relevance to them”, proposing as a countermeasure the need to revise curriculum related to such fields. In contrast to that alert, in a document published by UNESCO, it is stated that science and technology education offers opportunities “to develop the natural curiosity and creativity of young students.”
Along these lines and according to TIMMS 2019 -the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study- almost half of New Zealand students in the first year of secondary education do not feel or are not confident regarding science. While there is a wide range of reasons behind this, particularly concerning the education system itself, such as lack of funding and limited available resources, these factors might ultimately result in low levels of scientific inquiry abilities among children across the country.
As a response to these worrying facts, a team of researchers at the University of Auckland, a UNAI member institution in New Zealand that also serves as the Hub for Goal 4: Quality Education, developed Kiwrious. The project aims to empower today’s students to become fearless problem solvers. The Kiwrious Science Experience is a science learning tool and the first of its kind in New Zealand. It consists of a set of low-cost, plug-and-play sensor kits -which provides students easy access to invisible phenomena.
It also comprises curriculum-based teacher resources and an online learning platform where students can create and share their own inquiries. Together, they provide students and teachers alike the tools and resources for curiosity-driven explorations. Associate Professor Suranga Nanayakkara, the project lead and the Director of the Augmented Human Lab at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute housed by the university, said their mission is to “design fun and creative tools that spark and encourage deep-learning experiences.”
The Kiwrious sensors and the online learning platform were developed through an iterative user-centered process over the course of fourteen months. Early prototypes were tested in a series of onsite usability studies and field observations in different schools, and a one-month-long in-the-wild survey with students at home. During their various field visits, members of the research team observed that students were not inclined to plan, write, or describe their experiments formally.
Students actually wanted to measure things immediately and thought of questions as they went along. Furthermore, students found it tedious to repeat the same measurements, and they collaborated offline frequently, trying out what others were doing and comparing results. The sensors are connected to an online platform designed to give a first-hand experience of science's creative and social nature. Students are challenged to make observations, present findings in innovative ways, and discuss them with their peers.
The learning tool allows students to dive straight into measuring and capture images alongside their measurements. Encouragement to articulate their prior knowledge and predictions comes from a prompt to share anything they found interesting in an optional description before publishing their inquiry. In addition, students can ‘replicate’ their questions and invite their friends to do so. Through the use of scorecards displays, there is an emphasis on the collaborative nature of science.
This also gives students a concrete reason to repeat their measurements and provide more instructions for others to follow. One of the students said: “I liked how we could experiment with different materials and collaborate with friends.” An educator site and resources aligned with the New Zealand school curriculum were developed to address teachers' needs. With Dr. Dawn Garbett, former Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, they have set up a professional development community.
And through that community, teachers can share experiences and resources. So far, the feedback from educators has been quite positive. One teacher mentioned that “the beauty of it is that they are discovering all sorts of things!” Regarding the empirical aspect of science, another teacher commented that “what is invisible is actually happening and students can see it for themselves, and they will remember that.” Over 4,200 sensors were deployed to 35 schools across New Zealand in May 2021, less than two years after the project’s inception.
Since the deployment, which the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment supported, under the Curious Minds grant, over 1,300 science explorations have been saved or published by students. The number continues to grow daily. Associate Professor Suranga Nanayakkara pointed out that “this is just the beginning of the journey with the vision of democratizing the access to science and technology.” The team has even set up a not-for-profit foundation to sustain the project beyond initial research funding.