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Autumn 2008

Let's teach maths and science

Science goes walkabout

Julie Crough looks at interactive online learning modules and other related resources that are providing a springboard for engaging and relevant science programs, especially for schools in northern Australia.

Imagine you have just joined the research team in Kakadu National Park, with the guidance of the eminent scientist Dr John Woinarski, to investigate what is happening to the vulnerable northern quoll. This rich learner-centred experience of working scientifically and modelling exemplary research is part of an interactive online learning module, Savanna Walkabout.

Unique demographics: a snapshot of the north

Schools in northern Australia, and in particular the Northern Territory (NT), are located in that part of Australia that has the smallest population, the lowest population density, the youngest population, the highest proportion of Indigenous people, the highest level of transience, and the largest proportion of its population living in remote areas. In fact, nearly half of all schools in the NT are in remote areas.

While 29 per cent of the NT's population is Indigenous, 39 per cent are younger than 15 years (compared with the national average of 20 per cent for people under 15 years old). A recent NT Secondary Education Review highlighted the significance of this high proportion of young Indigenous people:

This demographically young and rapidly expanding Indigenous population has responsibility, through the Land Rights Act, for custodianship of 85 per cent of the Territory coastline and half of the total Territory land mass. This clearly has implications for Territory education, because as they fulfil responsibilities for "caring for country" and progress towards economic independence and self-reliance, Indigenous people will find it increasingly necessary to access and engage with Western knowledge systems.

In response to the challenging demographics and identified needs for schools, particularly in science, a partnership between the Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centre (and its 16 research partners) and the Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training was initiated four years ago. From there, the focus has been on developing collaborative and relevant online, learner-centred resources that are engaging, relevant and accessible to all middle-year students.

Why Savanna Walkabout?

Until Savanna Walkabout there were no comprehensive online learner-centred resources for schools focusing on savanna ecosystems. While environments in northern Australia are often associated with rainforests and reefs (with many school resources about them), this top third of mainland Australia is actually dominated by tropical savanna ecosystems. Savannas are grassy landscapes—woodlands with a grassy ground layer, or grasslands—that occur in tropical areas where the climate has distinct wet/dry seasons. Savanna Walkabout focuses on biodiversity conservation in one of the few extensive natural areas remaining on earth—Australia's tropical savannas.

Savanna Walkabout adopts a complete learning environment comprising a planned series of learner-centred activities—learning design—that is underpinned by an integrated inquiry-based learning approach. It seamlessly integrates challenging activities and rich tasks based on current research. It incorporates Indigenous perspectives, videos, audio, animations, graphics and stunning photos as well as supports literacy with tools such as a rollover glossary.

Indigenous perspectives and case studies are integral to Savanna Walkabout. For example, in the Impacts section (in Termite Trails), Dr Linda Ford tells the story of the impact of the mimosa weed on her homeland and how the Rak Mak Mak Marranunggu People (White Eagle People) have managed to control the weed. Based on this case study, students have the opportunity to develop simple food webs based on mimosa's impact on native species, including Mak Mak bush tucker. This case study is also currently the focus of collaborative research led by Dr Linda Ford entitled Engaging Indigenous students in science using Savanna Walkabout in language.

In the Meet the Researchers section, students have the opportunity not only to learn about the 'who, what, where, how and why' of key issues concerning biodiversity in the north but also experience each researcher's inherent passion and motivation for why they are scientists.

The culminating task in Join the Researchers draws on higher-order thinking skills modelling exemplary scientific practice that incorporates Indigenous knowledge for biodiversity conservation. Students investigate a real world problem mentored by Dr Woinarski and his team. This situated learning resembles a context where the knowledge and skills they are learning can be realistically applied. Throughout this section, Dr Woinarski provides very explicit, structured and directed feedback that is contextual, immediate and logical to scaffold the scientific inquiry.

Applying this knowledge and skills, students can be actively engaged in field work and their own investigations involving issues in their local environment. For example, riparian areas (riverbanks and creeks) are biodiversity hotspots (as Dr Michael Douglas explains in Meet the Researchers). Monitoring their condition (health) is critical to managing these hotspots in a sustainable way. Small groups of teachers have been involved in workshops to develop such skills, which they share with their students. The Tropical Rapid Appraisal of Riparian Condition (TRARC) is a field-based method to quickly assess riparian condition at small scales, i.e. sections of creeks and rivers that are less than 10 km long. All the resources—including the score sheets to use in the field—are freely available online on EnviroNorth (

Savanna science in schools: an NT case study

Two teachers who have been integral to Savanna Walkabout (and the other related support materials) are Viki Kane and Jenni Webber. Their Savanna Science programs in schools have provided engaging, relevant, meaningful and purposeful learning for their students. Previously, Jenni and Viki initiated engaging and relevant integrated Savanna Science programs based on Savanna Walkabout (and EnviroNorth) for years 6–7 students at Humpty Doo Primary in Darwin's rural area. Their integrated programs included tantalising culminating tasks such as claymations (like in Wallace & Gromit) where students used webcams and scripted their short films, which reflected their depth of understanding about, and for, conserving savanna environments. As Viki reflects, 'our students thoroughly enjoyed the ability to get out into the bush and investigate ecological and historical aspects of the savanna'.

More recently, Jenni and Viki have embarked on working on a new integrated science program, 'Living in Savannas' at Taminmin High School which is just down the track from Darwin at Humpty Doo. As Jenni explains, 'the website is well designed for both teachers and students to use. It is unique in the fact that it teaches key understandings and skills that provide a springboard for them to be actively involved in conserving, maintaining and restoring biodiversity in their local environment. Our students are aware that they are conducting real experiments and that their results are helping us better understand their local environment. Students will work with practising scientists to learn skills including the TRARC.'

Savanna science: other support materials

The module is fully supported on the EnviroNorth website by a suggested learning plan based on the Teaching for Understanding framework. Overarching understandings or 'big ideas', understanding goals that identify what students should know and do—the concepts, processes, skills and key questions—all help to focus the teaching/learning program towards the intended outcomes. The culminating performance task gives students a chance to apply and demonstrate their understandings in a purposeful and contextualised way.

Burning Issues, the next interactive module, will be available online in late March.


Louise Fogg is the education officer for Environmental Education for Sustainability and is the key collaborator for this joint project with the NT Department of Employment, Education and Training. Other key people who have been involved in the project include: Jenni Webber, Viki Kane, Barbara White, Peter Gifford, Dr Peter Jacklyn, Dr Linda Ford, Dr Penny Wurm, Dr John Woinarski, Dr Sam Setterfield, Dr Michael Douglas, Ian Dixon, Dr Christine Bach and Dr Ben Hoffmann. The Tropical Savannas CRC is funding the project.

Website links:


Savanna Walkabout

TRARC (field method)

Savanna Walkabout CDs are available on request from Julie Crough (email):

author picture Julie Crough is project leader of 'Tropical Savannas Knowledge in Schools' Project, at the Tropical Savannas Management Cooperative Research Centre.