Visit: Top science teacher

Nicolette Hilton at UNSW Science
Friday, 13 December, 2013

Nicolette Hilton, winner of the 2013 NSW Science and Engineering Award for Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, has visited UNSW Science.

Ms Hilton teaches at Uralla Central, a small school near Armidale which has about 300 students from kindergarten to Year 12, about 30 per cent of whom are indigenous Australians. She visited UNSW for three days this week at the invitation of the Dean, Professor Merlin Crossley.

While at UNSW she met with staff from the Schools of Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics and Statistics; toured the Museum of Human Diseases; and visited the Mars Yard exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum with UNSW’s Dr Carol Oliver, who developed the project.

Ms Hilton, who teaches science to Year 7 to 10 students as well as Year 12 biology, has also used young people’s interest in Mars and planetary exploration to develop engaging activities that instil a passion for science and maths in her students.

In winning the NSW government award in November she was commended for using “her students’ natural curiosity and fascination for space, and her own experiences, knowledge and skills which she developed working with NASA scientists, to inform innovative cross-curricular teaching activities.”

Ms Hilton travelled with other teachers to the desert near Lake Eyre as part of NASA’s Spaceward Bound program several years ago. She spent a fortnight with scientists from the US space agency who studied the microbes that survive in the extreme, dry conditions as part of an astrobiology project to predict what life forms might exist, or have existed in the past, on other planets.

“The scientists really like South Australia because it has such low rainfall. They were collecting samples, so we were involved in real science,” she says.

She uses her expedition experience in her teaching across different subjects: for example, by getting students to simulate the collection of soil samples in a grid system in the school long-jump pit; to count and classify the different types of microbes they can see on photos of the collection plates from the research; and to record their results while learning new information technology skills.

Earlier this year she was selected to travel to NASA’s Mars Desert Research Centre in Utah – a facility where researchers live in a confined spacecraft-like environment. “Every time you step outside you have to put a space suit on, because you’re simulating being on Mars,” she says.

Her role would have been in educational outreach, explaining to students the relevance of what the scientists were doing. Unfortunately, she could not go, because she had to have her appendix out just before the trip started. “That was quite devastating,” she says.

Nevertheless she has also used this program in her science and maths teaching, by getting students to design Mars hubs and make scaled models of them. The red planet fascinates many young people. “I’ve had students telling me they want to go to Mars. But they don’t know what is involved because they won’t be able to come back,” she says.

Next year Ms Hilton will be a teacher facilitator on another Spaceward Bound program in South Australia, which will have a focus on robotics, with a large, remotely controlled rover arriving from India for testing.

She has won many awards including a Churchill Fellowship, which allowed her to travel to the US in 2011, to visit science education centres, museums and curriculum developers and learn about innovative practices to improve the engagement of students in science.

This year she also received a $15,000 Premier’s Teacher Scholarship, which will allow her to travel to New Zealand and Canada in early 2014 to meet with leading educational academics to discuss indigenous perspectives in science curricula.

She has been a speaker at conferences overseas and in Australia, encouraging science teachers to take up the professional development opportunities available to them.

The more engaged the teacher, the more engaged in science their students will be, she says: “If they can keep their passion up and continue to find fresh ways to deliver the content, it’s going to mean their students are accessing more relevant science.”

She finds her science-based travels are invaluable in the classroom: “Students love it because I bring things back for them, as well as stories. Narrative is one of the richest forms of pedagogy.”

Her students will also undoubtedly hear about her trip to UNSW Science, where she was impressed by the facilities and staff she met, as well as the science outreach.

More country students might consider science degrees if they were aware of what was available, she says: “They need to see what happens at universities, and see what university labs look like. They need to experience real science and hear about what research scientists do, at a level they can understand.”

Media contact: Deborah Smith,, 9385 7307, 0478 492 060