Teaching and learning the scientific process

‘Real’ science is science as it is practised: using the processes of hypothesis, experimentation, observation, interpretation and debate.

Opening Real Science (ORS): Authentic Mathematics and Science Education for Australia was initiated to foster improvement in the quality of mathematics and science teaching by supporting pre-service programs to teach science as it is practised, in a way that promotes mathematics and science as authentic, dynamic, forward-looking and collaborative human endeavours.

The ORS project (2013-2017) was one of five consortia projects undertaken through the Australian Government’s Enhancing the Training of Mathematics and Science Teachers (ETMST) Program.

Project partners

Partner Institutions

The project was led by Macquarie University, in a strategic partnership with:

  • Western Sydney University
  • Australian Catholic University
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Edith Cowan University
  • University of Canberra
  • the University of Notre Dame Australia
  • CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science
  • the Australian Astronomical Observatory
  • Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope.

The project team consisted of:

  • Professor Joanne Mulligan (Project Leader, Macquarie University)
  • Professor David McKinnon (Edith Cowan University)
  • Professor Leigh Wood (Macquarie University)
  • Professor Robert Fitzgerald (University of Canberra)
  • Associate Professor Kevin Watson (University of Notre Dame Australia)
  • Professor John Hedberg (Macquarie University)
  • Associate Professor Andrew Hopkins (Australian Astronomical Observatory)
  • Professor Edward Gomez (Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network)
  • Professor Helen Pask (Macquarie University)
  • Professor Vince Geiger (Australian Catholic University)
  • Associate Professor Michael Cavanagh (Macquarie University)
  • Associate Professor Leanne Rylands (Western Sydney University)
  • Ms Sarah Rosen (Macquarie University)
  • Professor Quentin Parker (Macquarie University) and Associate Professor Carmel Coady (Western Sydney University) were previous members of the project team.


Professor Joanne Mulligan

Associate Professor Michael Cavanagh

Module access
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The ORS project successfully provided new and effective support for engaging and empowering pre-service teachers to embrace mathematics and science through:

  1. development of a new specialist professional experience model
  2. delivery of a ‘real science’ learning program and
  3. establishment of collaborative networks of scientists, statisticians, mathematicians, technology experts and teacher education professionals working to enhance the mathematics and science capabilities of pre-service teachers.

ORS modules: ‘real science’ learning program

The ORS modules were designed to engage pre-service teachers in ‘real science’ by linking them with case studies of cutting-edge scientific exploration and applications of mathematics, and giving them opportunities to pursue their own scientific and mathematical interests through investigative pedagogies.

The suite of 25 modules was developed by project teams comprising science, mathematics, education and design specialists, delivered through mixed and fully online modes, and trialled in a variety of contexts with tutor support. The modules cover mathematics (numeracy, statistical and financial literacy, advanced mathematics and mathematical modelling), physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and earth and environmental science.

There were 58 module evaluation trials across teacher education programs from seven universities involving 4226 pre-service teachers. The interdisciplinary, inquiry-based scientific approach was shown to be viable and effective in enhancing pre-service teacher knowledge and inquiry-based skills.

As a result, modules have been embedded in teacher education programs at partner universities. Components of the modules are being adapted for use in mathematics and science education programs and as teaching resources more generally. The modules are also being redeveloped for use in accredited professional learning for in-service teachers.

The ORS project has resulted in:

  • a scalable model for offering specialist mathematics and science professional experience for pre-service teachers
  • scientific method embedded in inquiry-led lessons through provision of learning materials incorporating authentic science experiences
  • a professional network of practicing scientists, mathematicians, teacher educators and mentor teachers, and increased cooperation between schools and universities
  • specialist primary and secondary mathematics and science teachers with an in-depth knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) content
  • improved teacher capability, confidence and motivation in mathematics and science.

Seven step changes were identified through the ORS project experience, leading to the following recommendations for enhancing the mathematics and science capability of pre-service teachers.

  1. Effective development of competent specialist primary mathematics and science teachers can be achieved through a collaborative ORS model.
    • Implement specialist professional experience in primary mathematics and science or STEM, with a minimum of 20 hours’ experience over a four-week block. Support from an expert science/mathematics advisor and a mentor teacher supportive of STEM initiatives are essential.
    • Recognise the different challenges for primary and secondary pre-service teachers in the design of education programs.
  2. Capabilities and capacity of pre-service primary teachers can be significantly improved and expanded through strategic changes at higher education level.
    • Prioritise within (Australian Councils of Deans of Education and Deans of Science) higher education academic programs and strategic planning the review and expansion of mathematics and science education within primary teacher education programs, coordinated with the recruitment of specialist educators with expertise in mathematics and science.
    • Appoint mathematics and science tertiary education experts, recruited from science, mathematics or related fields, as ‘boundary crossers’ with effective experience in scientific pedagogy.
  3. Systematic evaluation of primary and secondary (mathematics and science) pre-service teacher education programs can inform changes in scope and direction.
    • Re-design mathematics and science pre-service programs from the ground up based on systematic evaluation data of the outcomes of existing programs and the potential input from science faculties (and mathematics, engineering and information and communication technology (ICT) disciplines) and collaborative networks. The groundwork has been laid, but more work is needed in academic program review and development, and strategies for effective teaching and learning.
  4. Cross-faculty and cross-departmental collaboration can improve mathematics and science teacher education programs.
    • Establish effective collaborative committee and program development structures within universities where science and education faculties and departments (such as a cross-faculty working group) work together in the development, implementation and evaluation of STEM programs.
  5. Pre-service teachers can successfully apply mathematics and science knowledge and processes gained through academic study offered by faculties of science and mathematics.
    • Develop specialist primary mathematics and science education programs that tailor mathematics and science academic units, and coordinate their delivery.
  6. Authentic scientific contexts can transform and enrich pre-service training with the collaboration of scientists engaging pre-service teachers in scientific process and mathematical thinking.
    • Integrate real science contexts and problems, including industry or community-based field work or contexts, into mathematics and science teacher education programs.
    • Shift focus from traditional pedagogies aligned with syllabus content to engaging in contexts of authentic applications of mathematics and science.
  7. Cross-institutional cooperation and collaboration can facilitate improved sharing of resources and expertise.
    • Facilitate new ways of integrating content and pedagogy that reach beyond the level of individual institutions where the ETMST collaborative networks and resources can be shared, particularly where some teacher education programs do not have direct support from scientists and mathematicians.