UNE guides teachers towards the frontiers of rural science

Published 06 March 2012

Students of agricultural and environmental science at schools around Australia will benefit from their teachers’ immersion in cutting-edge research during a University of New England conference last weekend.

More than 100 teachers, from all six States as well as from the ACT, travelled to UNE for the conference, which enabled them not only to see applications of new technology in the field (as pictured here) and in the laboratory, but to make contact with some of the University’s leading researchers.

Mark Innes, a teacher from Urrbrae Agricultural High School in Adelaide, praised the UNE organisers of the conference for establishing “a link between teachers and university”. And Belinda Haigh from Dubbo School of Distance Education, herself a UNE graduate, said she was hoping to keep in touch with researchers after meeting them in person had “opened the door”.

“The large number of teachers here is a great reflection of the quality of the conference program and teachers’ need for this sort of information,” Ms Haigh said.

The program included a visit to Peterson’s Armidale Winery, where teachers saw – and tried for themselves – the application of precision-agriculture technology in measuring and mapping soil properties, growth vigour, and the sugar content of grapes. “I’m teaching a unit on wine making at the moment with my Year 9 students,” said an appreciative Kellie Hughes from The Scots PGC College in Warwick. “I think it’s good for agriculture teachers to get experience in the real world.”

While agricultural science teachers were investigating the science behind wine making, their environmental science colleagues were at UNE’s Newholme Field Laboratory, retrieving and examining film of animal movements from remotely-placed infrared video cameras. “They were all pretty impressed,” said Dr Karl Vernes, the wildlife ecologist who introduced them to the technology. “They could see how this could be used in education.”

The conference program comprised a mixture of practical sessions, lectures and site visits throughout Friday 2 March and Saturday 3 March. Topics for investigation included the control of fireweed and serrated tussock, soil carbon research, animal welfare, wild dog ecology, and acidity in soils.

The teachers were particularly interested to hear from current PhD students Dharma Purushothaman and Timothy McLaren about their research projects, and from Dr Rhiannon Smith about her UNE journey through Bachelor’s and PhD degree programs to her current position as a Junior Research Fellow in Ecosystem Management. “The courses UNE offers would be very suitable for our students,” said Jackie Bellotti from the Western Australian College of Agriculture. “And its Graduate Certificate and Diploma courses would be of interest to teachers.”

The Chancellor of UNE, Richard Torbay, joined the teachers for a formal dinner at the University’s Robb College, where they heard first-hand stories highlighting the importance of the college experience for students moving into tertiary education – and towards a focus on agriculture. Andrew Cosby, the President of the National Association of Agricultural Educators, said: “No one has invested in agricultural or environmental science teacher professional development to this level before, and we all greatly appreciate the opportunities we have been given over the past few days.”

The conference – the first of its kind at UNE – was organised by Amy Cosby through the University’s School of Environmental and Rural Science. “The overwhelmingly positive response to the conference – and to UNE – from teachers around Australia demonstrates the need for this type of professional development,” Ms Cosby said. “It is these teachers who have the greatest influence in encouraging students to consider a career in agricultural or environmental science.