WANTED: Who Might Be The Australian Equivalent Of Super-Awesome Sylvia?


pic1By Dr Jane Hunter.


As I left Brisbane after attending EduTECH 2015, I reflected on a tweet posted by Leanne Cameron from the ICT Educators of New South Wales (ICTENSW) – she called for Australia to find its own Super-Awesome Sylvia out in schools; or, as I am going to call her, Australia’s own Extra-Astonishing Anna or Alexia or Audrey. The call from Leanne is spot-on. Some might say it is copying the whole amazing Super-Awesome Sylvia juggernaut, but as my wise grandmother used to say, “Copying is the greatest form of flattery.”

For those readers who do not know the household education name of Super-Awesome Sylvia, aka Sylvia Todd, she is a 13-year-old girl from Northern California. Sylvia started making and tinkering when she was seven years old. She did everything from making old-fashioned craft to building rockets with her Dad and uploaded what can only be deemed ‘back to basics activities’ on YouTube. The videos went viral around the world and her actions have helped bring a renewed interest in school-aged children making stuff and doing science more generally.

Sylvia has spoken to the United Nations, addressed the White House (where she met President Obama), appeared on TV and given engaging speeches at major technical and education conferences across the globe. Not bad for a 13 year old.

Sylvia’s first project book has a clear focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learning. She emphasises Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) learning too – where the arts are considered essential in students making, tinkering and constructing in subjects like science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Book

In the book Project Book Volume 2, Sylvia introduces readers to all sorts of friendly robots, how to get to know programming prototyping platforms like Arduino, how to make simple strobes, experiments with the Randomly Influenced Finger Flute (RIFF) and the project ‘the Tapper’. The projects are easily doable in the classroom and clear instructions make the whole idea of ‘making stuff’ possible without too much expense for schools or for parents. The whole sense of fab labs, maker spaces or pop-up constructing areas in schools are a little akin to the ‘men’s shed idea’, only these are important shed-like spaces for school students.

On Stage

At EduTECH 2015, Sylvia showed videos of herself making things and she did two challenging science experiments on stage. When they looked like they were not working, she remained as cool as a cucumber –not easy to do in front of a large audience and a lesson for presenters. Sylvia’s mantra is, “I want to get more people to have a maker spirit.”

In the Press

Fronting the Australian press was something Sylvia did while she was in Brisbane and, on 3rd June, The Australian reported as her having no diva complex. James, her dad, said, “Perhaps interest in his daughter’s making… arises from parents wanting to tear kids away from their screens.” Now that is an interesting observation.

On ABC radio in Brisbane, only hours after Sylvia had delivered her address at the convention centre and signed many copies of her books, a compelling interview was broadcast with that other wonderful advocate of making and tinkering; another Sylvia – Sylvia Libow Martinez.

Favourite Book

Other Sylvia, as I call her, has advocated ‘learning learning’ through engagement, design and building for quite some time. She was the force behind the Generation YES projects. Getting children and young people interested in constructing and inventing is featured in Invent to Learn, published in 2013 by Sylvia and Dr Gary Stager. I recommend this book to primary school teachers I work with all the time. In the High Possibility Classrooms science and geography project I am conducting at the moment with eight enthusiastic kindergarten teachers at Epping West Public School in NSW, it is essential reading.

In these classrooms, students use iPads to create imaginative Pic Collages, Chatterpix and Nutshell narratives to explain ideas of motion within the environment. Young children are experimenting with concepts of making – it is ‘hard fun’ and there is lots of ‘thick play’ present. The final assessment task for the term involves students building something that moves for the school playground out of found and recycled materials.

Invent to Learn has a marvellous philosophical basis with many great ideas; it gives a brief history of making (and of course references the founder of the Maker Movement, Seymour Papert), the learning theory of constructionism and new ways to think about what makes a good project.

High Possibility Classrooms Research

Gina, one of the teachers in my doctoral study that led to development of the High Possibility Classroom model for technology-enhanced learning in schools, was a huge fan of making. In her last school, she set up a maker space and she held regular ‘Hackadays’ with other Sydney schools. Her teaching for many years has revolved around a focus on STEM subjects.

In interviews conducted for the research, Gina spoke about her love of tinkering, constructing and pulling things apart. In a science lesson I observed, Gina disassembled a regular A4 battery in a Year 4 class on alternative energy. She screened the process from her laptop and it was magnified onto a larger screen so students could see what was inside the battery in graphic detail. The learning captivated students’ attention and they asked so many excellent questions.

Gina’s personal teaching mantra is, “Questions are more important than answers.” Apparently her dad used to say it. In fact, it was Gina’s father who helped develop her affection for tinkering and constructing. She would spend hours in the garage building things with nails and wood, and would carefully break her dolls to see how they worked. Gina was the first child in her primary school class to have a computer. She introduced me to the wonderful video Caine’s Arcade, which has some fascinating viewpoints.

Teachers must get more students building and constructing things out of all sorts of materials. Start by asking them to bring some recycled bits and pieces into class to begin the making process. Using the project books of Super-Awesome Sylvia is a great place to start and following the work of Australian educators like Ziena Chalich, Georgia Constanti, Matt Richards (now in New Zealand), Jenny Luca, Meredith Ebbs, Anne Knock, Debbie Evans and John Goh is a great next step. They are all doing interesting projects involving making in schools.

Finding Australia’s Extra-Astonishing Anna or Alexia or Audrey

One of the meta-issues in the push to find Australia’s Extra-Astonishing Anna or Alexia or Audrey is getting more girls into technology, especially writing computer code and pursuing careers in STEM more generally. Articles in recent issues of Education Technology Solutions make a substantial contribution to raising awareness of this urgent need. There will be a shortage of coders into the future – there is a shortage now. Google is funding programs to the tune of $50 million around the world to get girls into STEM. At a recent TeachMeet in Sydney, I was flabbergasted to learn that, of the 12,000 computer science students graduating annually from Australian universities, only 4000 are domestic students (Sally-Ann Williams, Google, May 2015).

The STEM area is critical to Australia’s national productivity (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2014), so the sooner teachers get students making, tinkering, engineering and constructing, and really keen on all their STEM subjects, the better!

In the meantime, is there a girl at your school who might be the Australian version of Super-Awesome Sylvia or, for that matter, Australia’s Extra-Astonishing Anna or Alexia or Audrey? Let us find her!

Dr Jane Hunter teaches in pre-service teacher education at the University of Western Sydney. She was a classroom teacher and has won many awards for outstanding contributions to student learning in Australian universities. Her doctoral study is published in Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK and is available for purchase on Amazon.


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