Now I can’t wait to teach science!” (PST comment, 2007)

Building Confidence in Pre-service Teachers (PST) in Teaching Primary Science

By Donna Satterthwait & Karin Oerlemans

Poster presentation at 8th Teaching Matters Conference: Partnerships for learning: On campus and beyond, UTAS, Sandy Bay, TAS.


Since 2006 all primary pre-service teachers, enrolled in the Bachelor of Teaching, have participated in the University of Tasmania’s Science Fair. This event, held annually during the National Science Week, is jointly sponsored by the Faculties of Education and Science, Engineering and Technology, therefore truly a partnership for learning on our Campus. And one that moves beyond the boundaries of our University and into the community. Each year over 1200 school students from year 5-8 are invited to attend and become excited about science.

This poster presents a findings of a strategy employed to address the negative attitude and lack of confidence commonly displayed by primary teacher. Science teacher education staff developed a sequence of authentic tasks that required immersion in the act of planning, presenting, and evaluating a science lesson based on a single science concept and activity.

Building Confidence:

The focus of the science fair is to build PST confidence and understanding of what it means to teach science, especially in the primary classroom, where so many  teachers lack the confidence and have inadequate knowledge of science. They teach as little of the subject as “the teacher can get away with” (Harlen & Holroyd, 1997, p. 103).

It is the role of PST education to prepare future primary teachers to be confident in order to be effective teachers of science (Murphy, Neil & Beggs, 2007). A recent report from the Association of Consulting Engineers in Australia identified that the lack of confidence in teaching science was one of the greatest challenges in the ongoing supply of engineers and scientists in the country (ACEA, 2008).

Learning Framework:

Benner (1982) conceptualised a framework that identifies the developmental stages in the journey from novice to expert in nursing education. We have adapted this framework to inform our curriculum design. To move from a novice to an expert requires the novice to gain knowledge about science, pedagogical content  knowledge about hands-on  teaching strategies, experience  interacting with school students,  rehearsal resulting in de-emphasis  on performance and emphasis on  student learning, collaboration, and  group feedback and reflection to  further inform and enhance the  overall efficacy of the teaching  episode.

Prior to the science fair the PST has had little exposure to science, students, and minimal experience in schools. The rehearsal process, moves through the cycle (plan, act and reflect) and provides the PST with a wider, more complex perspective. The PSTs gain an overall picture of what teaching is, rather than a collection of individual aspects.  They skip from the novice stage, those who tend to see actions in isolation, to the proficient (fourth stage in this model) those who see an overall picture and visualise how the various aspects fit together.  The fifth stage, expert (the one who is able to understand alternative approaches) comes with further practice in the classroom. As Common (1989, cited in Kane, Sandretto & Heath, 2004) has stated, “Master teachers are not born, they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do; by developing the courage to recognise faults, and by struggling to improve”. Our focus has been on encouraging our PSTs through the learning framework; the data, explored below, captures their experiences.

Science Fair:

The science fair takes place over 2 days, though preparation begins well before. In small groups the PSTs were required to identify a science concept, plan a lesson that incorporates a hands-on activity that illustrates the concept, trial the activity among peers, and then enact, reflect and evaluate in the group between lesson sessions.

In 2008 15 different topics were presented. A booklet was compiled from all of the PSTs activities, including lesson plans, worksheets and teacher background notes. These were distributed to all teachers who brought their classes to the fair and to all PSTs.

During the course of the two days the PSTs enacted their science ‘lesson’ at least six times, each time with a different small group of students, interacting with children of diverse interests and abilities. After the science fair the PSTs are required to submit a reflective essay on their experiences; these formed part of the data.

An authentic task:

  • Science lesson planning
  • Focus on one concept
  • Hands-on activities
  • Collaboration
  • Repetition
  • Reflection


Data was collected through questionnaires of the teachers, surveys of the PSTs, PSTs reflective essays, and unsolicited emails. These indicated that the PSTs benefited greatly from this intense experience, an experience that demanded considerable energy and focus.  Perhaps because of this intensity, they emerged surprised that they enjoyed the ‘science’ and were more confident with science pedagogy.

From a survey of PSTs in 2007, all stated that their participation in the science fair was worthwhile. “During the Science Fair I learnt how important preparation time is, to allow time for the students to ask and asking each one a question, if possible.  Taking a genuine interest in them as individuals was also important. I found this experience gave me confidence and to help me work out what sort of teacher I am becoming” (PST comment, 2007).

An analysis of the reflections showed that the experience was transformative. The PSTs indicated strong growth in confidence and stated that science teaching had become much less ‘daunting’. The fair created an enthusiasm for the teaching of science as reported by the PSTs (2008). PST observations of their growth of confidence were identified from the PST reflections and placed into Wordle to create a word cloud generating a diagrammatic representation of word usage, giving greater prominence to words that appear more frequently.

The teachers’ questionnaire outcomes (see histograms) rated the topics covered by the PSTs. In 2008 all of the activities were seen as “working well”.  All of the teachers indicated they intended to bring their students back to the science fair. “Great initiative enthusiastic and well prepared presentations, loved the hands-on! Well organised and thoughtful program, thank you” (Teacher email, 2008).

A number of schools have subsequently introduced science fair events in their own school communities modelled on the UTAS Science Fair.


Association of Consulting Engineers Australia. (2008). ACEA Primary School Science Education Summit. Brisbane: Association of Consulting Engineers Australia.

Benner, P. (1982). From Novice to Expert.  The American Journal of Nursing, 82 (3), 402-407.

Harlen, W., & Holroyd, C. (1997). Primary teachers’ understanding of concepts of science: Impact on confidence and teaching. International Journal Science Education, 19(1), 93-105.

Hudson, P., & Ginns, I. (2007). Developing an instrument to examine preservice teachers’ pedagogical development. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 18, 885-899.

Kane, R., Sandretto, S., & Heath, C. (2004). An investigation into excellent tertiary teaching: Emphasising reflective practice. Higher Education, 47, 283-310.

Murphy, C., Neil, P., & Beggs, J. (2007). Primary science teacher confidence revisited: Ten years on. Educational Research, 49(4), 415-430.

©2009 Donna Satterthwait and Karin Oerlemans