Grant: Teaching science to the digital generation

Today's students are digital natives
Monday, 1 July, 2013

A UNSW-led initiative using online educational tools such as game-like quests and virtual labs to teach maths and science to high school students has been awarded a $1.64 million grant.

The Smart Science project is a partnership between scientists and education experts at UNSW and three other universities, high school science teachers and technology company, Smart Sparrow.

It will introduce Year 9 and 10 students to the research of Australian scientists, including Nobel laureate, Professor Barry Marshall, and allow them to investigate big questions such as: “Are we alone in the universe?”, “Where does wild weather come from?”, and “How will we survive a superbug outbreak?”

Project leader, Dr Carol Oliver, Associate Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW, said the four Smart Science modules utilise an intelligent, personal tutoring system developed by Smart Sparrow.

“Every student will be able to learn about real, relevant Australian science anytime and at their own pace, regardless of geographical isolation or socio-economic status. And their teachers will be able to monitor the progress of both individuals and groups of students at the same time,” she said.

Dr Oliver said Gen Z students are “digital natives” who are more motivated to learn in a personalised, gamified environment. They do not do as well with traditional techniques, such as teachers lecturing while students take notes.

“These very different learners have the potential to become more scientifically literate than any generation before them.  In our information-rich society it is critical that they understand science as a way of evidence-based thinking. Our future economy depends on it.”

Smart Sparrow’s world-first adaptive eLearning platform, which was invented at UNSW, provides a rich, interactive and adaptive online learning experience. Students are guided individually through difficult content, giving teachers insights into what and how the students learn.

The Smart Science partnership involves UNSW, Smart Sparrow, the University of Western Australia, Flinders University, and Arizona State University.

Professor Steven Sherwood, Director of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, will lead development of the wild weather module and Dr Oliver will co-lead development of the extra-terrestrial life module.

The project, which is funded by the federal government's Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Program, will be trialled in 16 schools before going nationwide in a bid to address a 30-year long decline in senior school science enrolments.

Dr Oliver previously established the Mars Yard at the Powerhouse Museum and last year won a $2.9 million grant so all Australian schools can have remote access to the facility and drive the Mars rovers and interact with scientists and engineers via a multimedia studio.


Dr Oliver: 0417 477 612,,

Associate Professor Julian Cox:  9385 8574, 0468 989 180,,  

UNSW Science media: Deborah Smith: 9385 7307, 0478 492 060,

The four modules:

Are we alone? The search for life beyond Earth (UNSW and Arizona State University)

This maths-intensive quest explores the question of whether we are alone in the universe. Exercises and challenges are used to survey the physical, chemical, biological and geological processes that make Earth suitable for life. Students then use this information to examine the prospects for life on other planets in our solar system and beyond.

Where does wild weather come from? (UNSW)

This module uses a game-like “whodunit” format to introduce students to extreme events in climate and weather and explore a list of “suspects” to explain these phenomena. The student assumes the persona of a working scientist and interacts with other scientists while gathering data, observing past climate changes and key factors that control climate to develop an interactive, quantitative climate model.

The body in question – infectious diseases and medical discovery (UWA)

Why did the Australian Nobel laureate, Professor Barry Marshall, drink bacteria? This module is based on the discovery by Professor Marshall and Dr Robert Warren that stomach ulcers are caused by the bacteria, Helicobacter pylori. Students guide the bacteria so they stick to the stomach wall and then help them fight off enzymes, toxins and immune cells released by the body to try and kill the invaders.

Why very small is big – the new frontiers of nanotechnology (Flinders)

An engaging game-like scenario will enable students to enter a virtual, nanoscale world. They will learn how atoms and molecules interact on the nanoscale - an area of scientific inquiry that could lead to tiny delivery systems for treating cancer, biosensors for detecting environmental contamination and new coatings that self-clean.