Calling All STEM Experts


Whale snot + drones + research = inspiring young people in schools in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

No doubt that opening line attracted your attention. Vanessa Pirotta is a PhD student at Macquarie University in Sydney. In May 2018, she won the Australian final of the British Council’s FameLab; this annual event is the leading science communication competition in the world and attracts early career researchers to explain a scientific concept to a general audience in just three minutes. Read more about FameLab

Interviewing a STEM Expert

I was fortunate to catch up with Vanessa just before she competes at the international FameLab finals in the UK. I was curious to find out more about her research and how experts from the STEM disciplines can support learning in schools. Here are some highlights.

Me: What is the focus of your research?

Vanessa: My PhD is primarily conservation based. As part of this, I am investigating conservation gaps for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). We know a lot about some species, but very little about others. This is largely a result of some species being difficult to study and this makes conservation a little tricky. My PhD tries to address some of these conservation gaps by reviewing known and emerging threats to cetaceans and investigating the use of emerging technologies, such as drones, for conserving.

Me: Why whales and their snot and… drones?

Vanessa: I have always had a passion for whales and dolphins, which is quite odd, as I grew up a long way from the coast on a farm outside of Canberra. After I completed my Master of Research (trying to prevent whale entanglement in fishing gear), I started my PhD and, at the time, drones were everywhere. I thought it would be a great idea to harness their adaptability for learning more about whales. Whale snot was the natural choice of sample to collect, as whales produce a lot of it and collecting it could be done non-invasively. I was not the best drone pilot out there and many of the off-the-shelf drones were not waterproof for sampling whale snot, so I collaborated with industry for this project. I worked closely with a good friend, Alastair Smith from Heliguy Scientific, and together we created a waterproof, snot-collecting drone.

Me: What are you finding so far?

Vanessa: We found out that the drone is indeed collecting whale snot rather than just air or water. Whale snot contains a variety of bacteria that we use to provide a baseline of information from what we consider to be relatively healthy, free swimming humpback whales off the coast of Sydney. We also found an overlap with bacteria collected from the snot of northern hemisphere whales. This is just the first step of what can be done with this method of data collection. I would love to collect more samples each year to help build a picture of whale health over time. I would also like to adapt this method to more threatened whale populations, such as the southern right whale.

Me: I am keen to know a little more about why you wanted to study science and such large mammals using tech and to do it with drones.

Vanessa: It was something different and exciting. I saw the practicality and adaptability that drones had to offer for whale research. It means we do not have to get close to these very large animals that can reach lengths of 17 metres and weigh over 40,000 kilograms.

Me: If you had ONE wish for STEM and young people what would it be?

Vanessa: Providing opportunities for young people to explore their passion. This may seem simple but, in reality, there may be challenges to achieving this.

Me: Why should teachers and students in schools listen to scientists and other experts in the STEM disciplines?

Vanessa: Scientists are often leaders in their field and have a lot of knowledge to share. They learn about new things well before the rest of the world does. Teachers should feel able to approach scientists to learn more about their work; all they have to do is ask. Scientists also need to make sure they connect with teachers and students so that they expand the reach of their work and hopefully encourage the next generation of great minds.

Recruiting Authentic Voices to Promote Passion for STEM in Schools

Teachers have always used external guest speakers and specialists in the classroom to add value to STEM subjects studied at school. Experts like Vanessa Pirotta are very keen to share their research with students of school age. Imagine if more young people could listen to the STEM story she weaves about drones that fly off a marine vessel out at sea over whale pods to capture the spray (that is, snot) each time they surface? The photos Vanessa shares only add to the excitement of the possibilities for future study in STEM.

Most Australian universities have willing experts in the STEM disciplines that are available to speak to students in schools about their research. For example, at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Dr Eva Cheng, Deputy Director of Women in Engineering and Information Technology in the School of Electrical and Data Engineering, regularly works with schools and has a team of young researchers who share their knowledge of all matters engineering.

Dr Chris Ferrie, a quantum physicist also at UTS and author of the popular series Quantum Physics for Babies, likes to talk to teachers about science principles that can inspire learning in STEM. Other organisations have excellent programs, like the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) program STEM Professionals in Schools. It seems all you have to do is contact your nearest university or check online for a STEM Ambassadors Program near where you live, add some key words into your search engine and make the call.

Rural and remote schools too can videoconference in an expert from the field. The NSW Department of Education’s popular Distance and Rural Technologies (DART Connections) program has for many years offered exciting connection to experts and STEM-focused institutions. For example: the Reef HQ – the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium; the Alaska Sea Life Centre, Questacon – National Science and Technology Centre; and the Australian Museum and nuclear medicine experts at Charles Sturt University.

Building Teams of HPC Coaches who use STEM Experts as a Hook

In my current research in NSW public schools designed to build middle-level leaders’ capacity and confidence in STEM using the High Possibility Classrooms (HPC) framework, teachers are contacting STEM experts in local universities with great success and they are involving parents/aunts/older siblings who are proving more than willing to share their STEM knowledge and expertise in classrooms.

In the meantime, Vanessa will be inspiring these same middle-level leaders at a Sharing Day #HPCSTEM on the 21st of May at UTS. Most of all, we wish her well in her career as a leader in STEM and at the international FameLab finals later in the year. More snot please – we want healthy whales in our oceans!

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Jane Hunter

Jane Hunter

Senior Lecturer, School of Education at University of Technology Sydney
I am a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education conducting postdoctoral research in STEM, with a background in secondary and primary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past I have held leadership roles as a head teacher in secondary schools, in government bureaucracies in education policy and in large-scale technology projects including the Teaching and Learning Exchange, the Connected Classrooms Program and Quality Teaching. I taught in teacher education at the University of Sydney for six years where I was seconded to the Interim Committee for a NSW Institute of Teachers and the Australian Government Quality Teaching Program. In 2010 I joined the staff in the School of Education as a Lecturer in the Master of Teaching program at Western Sydney University where I also completed my PhD in 2013. Throughout my education career in both universities and ‘outside the academy’ I have circulated findings of my research in book chapters and scholarly papers. I also enjoy writing for public forums like The Conversation, I have a blog and find Twitter @janehunter01 an important place to engage with education colleagues more broadly. In March 2016 I was a keynote speaker at the Future Schools Conference in Sydney.

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