A journey from space to the classroom: Tracey Schwonberg Warzecha

15 September 2015

Following on from the recent generous $1 million donation by Mr Massy-Greene and University Chancellor Belinda Hutchison for the STEM program, we go behind the scenes to talk with Tracey Schwonberg Warzecha, Head Teacher, Curriculum of Riverside Girls High School and Academic Committee Member of the STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy about her 30-year journey as a science teacher.

An early enthusiasm for the space race of the 60s and after school in creative, practical 'design play' in her father's workshop have inspired a lifelong journey in the sciences for Ms Warzecha.

"Science itself inspired me from a very early age. The space race, assembling plastic models from the Cornflakes box and pouring over every new volume of Time/Life Nature. I knew every page, every image," says Ms Warzecha, STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy Academic Committee member.

"My parents would tell you that I wasn't content with just knowing the answer. I had to explore every last aspect of that answer. As a primary school child, I built kites, dog chariots, string puppets and rubber band guns, carried a pocket knife, tapped the rubber from the frangipani trees, disassembled my bike, kept fish, had pets, went fishing and rough camping, chopped wood, built fires, cooked with my grandmother, played cards, worked in the garden, mowed the lawn, did origami and spent most of my holidays underwater or poking around a rock platform," recalls Ms Warzecha. "I think that was the key to my love of science and how it worked".

"Having a sense that things were worth knowing and children were worth teaching and that important adults spent time developing your practical skills and were quietly proud of your achievements – without me actually realising at the time – is probably what inspired me to become a teacher".

The journey in teaching sciences began with a NSW Teacher Education Science Scholarship allowing her to complete a Bachelor of Science with majors in both physical and inorganic chemistry and plant physiology/botany and a Diploma of Education.

Despite being strongly encouraged to continue with her academic studies in postgraduate science, having achieved top of her class in two science courses and qualified for honors in both her majors, she chose teaching.

Her teaching career began in south-western Sydney teaching science, chemistry and horticulture. Over the past 30 years, she has held many relieving positions such as Head Teacher Science, Administration, Welfare, briefly Deputy whilst still remaining enthusiastic in the classroom teaching science and chemistry and is an experienced HSC chemistry marker and examination assessor. With her capacity for innovation and 'big picture' thinking, she is currently Head Teacher of Curriculum at Riverside Girls High School in Sydney.

"I have always been passionate about extending and enriching every student's experience within science from a practical inquiry-base but also with real-world relevance. Science is everywhere and connects with everything," said Ms Warzecha.

As an enthusiastic advocate for problem- and project-based learning and has designed, implemented and taught many cross-curricular projects. These have ranged from redesigning a cell membrane as a dynamic model from recycled materials; a solutions-based approach to Australia's Organ Donation Crisis as an open brief to a target audience where students designed advertisement campaigns as evocative animations and film, radio broadcasts, board games and driver education merchandise; an interfaculty history, science and ICT project where the engineering principles in prototype design and construction tested the effectiveness of medieval weaponry; and a 'Earth Myth' digital story collaboration between the departments of science and English. Her sustainability unit and enrichment project 'Riverside Survivor' written for the North Sydney DEC regional project: "Differentiation for High Performance Learning", was showcased at the 2013 Australian Curriculum conference in Darwin.

Her students will attest to high levels of engagement, fun and purposeful, relevant learning. One of her accelerated chemistry classes identified "Ms Warzecha's Pirrozo multiple intelligence/Blooms project: All My Little Chickens" as "the best things they ever did in their 13 years of schooling".

"They learnt about animal rights, ethics and legal requirements, nutrition, egg anatomy, measured growth rates, performed paper-mache chicken plays, did the chicken dance, composed lullabies to hatch chickens, designed and built chicken utopias and hatched and played with chickens. Many had never nurtured pets" said Ms Warzecha.

Her passion in teaching sciences extends to Aboriginal Education where in 2012 and 2013, she received recognition for her work on the implementation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander History and Culture into science programs at Riverside Girls High School.

Students were able to explore Dhurag Land and Ecology management practices, try out 'peck and grove' rock engraving to make sandstone signposts for the schools bush tucker garden, make botanic and traditional use name plates for bush tucker specimens and starting The Riverside Dreaming Dried Herb Bush Tucker Company using school grown bush tucker (pictured).

Her commitment to implementing ATSI culture and history as an Australian cross-curricular priority also resulted in a cross-faculty collaborative project to build a Yarning Circle: Gamarada Wurrungwuri. Geography students identified the coordinates needed to align the circle with Kuringai Rock Engravings and their songlines; mathematics students mapped the circle; art students etched the stumps with symbols for the eight ways of Aboriginal learning; science classes preserved the timber (pictured); and the Indigenous students, together with the Head of Welfare, hosted a regional gathering.

Currently, as a result of the STEM academy, Riverside Stage 4 students have been engaged in two cross-curricular projects. One is a science, technology, mathematics and PE project looking at The "F.I.T.T. Principle": students are exploring personal fitness through inquiry-based experimental design. The other is an integrated unit with science, mathematics and ICT, where students are exploring the universe to develop a colony for life beyond Earth using CAD and three-dimensional printers.

Ms Warzecha said being part of the STEM Academy Academic Committee at the University of Sydney has been a great opportunity to share her experiences and expertise, form stronger professional links and assist in the development and mentoring of the next generation of STEM Academy Teacher graduates and preservice STEM teachers.

"I feel the STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy reinvigorated our innovative practices and opened up all our staff to wanting to be 'up on the latest' again. Many were initially feeling overwhelmed but it's gaining groundswell and the whole school is coming on board," said Ms Warzecha.

"STEM has become our Strategic Direction 1: Empowering Successful Learners in our School Plan 2105–2017. In my role as HT Curriculum, it has given me the new platform to drive cross-curricular conversations for shared programming and assessment-task development. Several cross-curricular projects have been written and implemented. We are now bringing the parent and school community on board to share the importance of STEM education and the need to support girls in embracing the more rigorous STEM subjects, future tertiary studies and careers in STEM."