Schools are being encouraged to develop localised teaching units now that national standards have been abolished. Simon Collins reports in the first of a five-part series.
Stink bugs are inspiring 5-year-olds to be scientists in Tauranga schools.
The children are hunting for dangerous stink bugs that might have escaped from ships in the port, in a unique collaboration between schools and other agencies called Tauranga Moana Biosecurity Capital.
"They are learning to take a photo and report it to an adult," says Chris Duggan, of House of Science, which worked with AgResearch scientists to create a regional biosecurity resource kit for schools.
"At Te Puke Primary you can see 5-year-old kids running around the school grounds saying, 'I think I've found a brown marmorated stink bug.'"
At Welcome Bay School, science lead teacher Katreena Daniels says parents who work in the kiwifruit industry brought in some real bugs so small that the children could only see them under a microscope.
"It makes it really real for them, it's not just a game," she says.
"We set up a mock version of a biosecurity breach. We have kids running around the playground digging in the dirt and looking under leaves."
When an AgResearch scientist visited, Daniels asked the children to welcome "a real scientist".
"One of the kids put up his hand and said, 'But we are all scientists!'" she says.
"That's huge. They believe they have those skills and can make a difference. They are able to make a local action which they can contribute from the age of 5."
The biosecurity kit is an example of a localised curriculum designed to make learning relevant and exciting even for children who might have been least exposed to reading and writing at home.
Schools have been encouraged to develop local learning ever since the current NZ curriculum was adopted in 2007, and it is now being stressed again by an advisory group on what will replace National Standards, which measured learning only in reading, writing and maths.
In a fruit-growing area, Tauranga children can quickly understand the importance of biosecurity. Four ships carrying imported cars were turned away from NZ ports last summer because they were infested with brown marmorated stink bugs, and another was turned back from Auckland in November.
The resource kit includes a board game called Invasion Busters, developed by AgResearch scientist John Kean, in which bug populations multiply exponentially until a player catches them.
At Welcome Bay, Daniels has extended the topic to look at pests that threaten bees, which pollinate kiwifruit and other local crops.
"We had Mossop's Honey come in," she says. "They were blown away by how much the children knew."
The school uses the topic across all school subjects.
"The oral language that grows from it is incredible," Daniels says.
"You can use it for number by posing problems to them. And technology - they came up with a design for a trap that they could make and the materials they might need. We haven't physically built the trap but we built some models."
The topic has also built the school's connections with parents.
"The kids go home and talk about it, and parents check in saying, 'Are they really doing this?'"
AgResearch surveyed how much the children knew about biosecurity before they started studying the topic and have surveyed them again at the end of last year. Results are still being analysed but Daniels is confident the children have remembered what they learnt.
"They have retained it - identifying bugs, knowing how they get in and how we can prevent them," she says.
"It was quite early in the year but it hasn't just gone in one ear and out the other. It has stayed there."