The Government has injected another $2 million into getting our kids hooked on science. Why is it so important? Science reporter Jamie Morton investigates.

It's late on a Monday afternoon in Merivale, a decile-one Tauranga suburb where the kids are grappling with the basic laws of physics.

What is potential energy and how is it transferred? What happens when kinetic energy and potential energy are combined?

These questions would severely test the attention spans of most of us, but these year 5 and 6 children from the local primary school can't seem to get enough of it.

It's because they're watching energy-packed peanuts burst into fireballs and launching pom-poms from popsicle-stick catapults.


But the same messages are getting through, without the need for whiteboards or dusty old textbooks.

In a small room out the back of Merivale Community Centre, Alicja Ginders moves between kids, helping them melt marshmallows on flaming peanuts.

Later, they gather around, giggling and shouting, as they prepare to fire off party poppers - another easy way to demonstrate properties like force, pressure and friction.

"I love working with the kids," says Ginders, a retired secondary school teacher now involved in the six-month-long after-school programme run by Tauranga-based House of Science.

"We are trying to introduce them to opportunities to engage in science through simple activities, the sorts of things you might do at home." Last month, the kids played with bubbles, experimented with water density and watched tadpoles turn into frogs.

This is tangible learning, opening their eyes to a world outside the tough setting in which they live, and precisely the kind of activity that a sprawling new Government effort, dubbed A Nation of Curious Minds, wants in New Zealand communities.

The Tauranga programme is one of the first to benefit from its encompassing multi-million dollar "Unlocking Curious Minds" contestable fund.

Among the latest successful applicants, announced two weeks ago, are new projects to get young Maori involved in astronomy and space travel, and tasking year 10 students from Christchurch to design resilient pop-up model houses using computer-aided design and laser cutting.

The fund targets those considered "harder to reach" - typically from low-income families or living in remote parts of the country.

Outside it is an abundance of independent community-based options for kids to learn about science, many of them new.

The charity OMG Tech fosters kinesthetic learning - building, breaking, doing - by letting pupils bust open electronics with hammers and screwdrivers.

And The Mind Lab, a collaboration with Unitec, allows students to try robotics equipment and 3D printing, and is swiftly branching into more centres.

There's a simple reason for the big focus on science and kids.

Young people are our future and so, too, is cutting-edge innovation.

The Government has made no secret of wanting more young people studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects to power high-tech industries in a diversifying, knowledge economy.

It is no coincidence the opening of graduate schools focused on information and communications technology (ICT) comes after that sector's contribution to GDP grew by more than $7 billion in five years.

Part of the $761 million banked in the Budget for the Government's "Innovative New Zealand" is $256.5m for more tertiary education and apprenticeship programmes, particularly in science, engineering and agriculture.

But New Zealand wants to close the innovation gap with other advanced economies. The message has repeatedly been, it has to boost its investment in tomorrow's bright young minds today.

Besides the clear business case, the benefits of a smarter, more science-literate society are incalculable.

A survey by Nielsen Research indicates most of us enjoy finding out about new developments but one-third of Kiwis feel science is too specialised to understand.

More worryingly, just over half think there is too much conflicting information - and a separate survey suggests only 49 per cent of Kiwis think climate change is real.

The Nielsen report nonetheless finds 90 per cent think it important to study science and technology at school and 84 per cent believe knowledge of science is useful for "career opportunities". Despite this, most year 4 and 8 students' scientific knowledge is gained from listening to teachers, rather than investigating their own questions or applying science to issues of concern to them.

And we know teachers working with these students feel less confident teaching science.

Scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, sets fire to chemicals in her hand. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, sets fire to chemicals in her hand. Photo / Jason Oxenham

What little longitudinal data we have of science engagement in our classrooms shows New Zealand hasn't been earning A grades.

Over recent years, there has been a gradual decline in year 11-13 students enrolled in science-related subjects, at a time when academic performance in the area is also flagging.

The 2012 results of the OECD's Programme for International Study Assessment (Pisa) sat by 15-year-olds around the world, show New Zealand has slipped from 7th to 18th in international rankings for science.

Professor Stuart McNaughton, the country's first appointed chief education scientific adviser, also believes there is an "equity concern" sitting behind our focus on science teaching and learning.

"We need to make sure students from all our communities are well-represented in science courses through their schooling and have the same options as others for science-related employment."

For teachers, introducing more science to pupils can be confronting, especially on top of what is already expected of them.

"Often it requires considerable investment in extra time by dedicated teachers above and beyond their standard workload to ensure that students experience real science during their schooling year," says Terry Burrell, an award-winning science teacher at Wellington's Onslow College.

She feels schools are being "squashed" amid pressures around meeting educational milestones like NCEA and Pisa.

There is a range of opportunities to engage with scientists, but how these are used varies from school to school and depends on each school's philosophy.

Education outside the classroom is also restricted by school funding constraints and health and safety restrictions, she says.

"Not only are schools reluctant to take students out to experience real science but the institutions and labs are closing their doors to foot traffic.

"There are some amazing schemes, such as FutureInTech, that places stunning ambassadorial role models into schools. But visit a working lab or even a production line? Unlikely."

Because of new efforts like A Nation of Curious Minds, however, schools are receiving invitations each week to participate in competitions, camps and challenges.

Elsewhere, the Government-funded, Waikato University-managed Science Learning Hub giving teachers something of a one-stop shop, bringing together a wide network of scientists and a rich supply of downloadable, ready-to-use resources for teachers.

"The idea of a single hub is absolutely vital for teachers who are ridiculously busy but also extremely keen to access rich current contexts for their teaching of science," Burrell says.

Many of the scientists joining the battle are also our best-known.

Behind OMG Tech is Dr Michelle "Nanogirl" Dickinson, perhaps science's most inspiring role model to young Kiwis.

The Auckland University nanotechnologist's charity now travels around the country, focusing on pupils between 8 and 11 - the period that matters most when plotting future career courses - as well as girls and Maori and Pasifika children.

Last month, prominent Massey University microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson helped high school students showcase short nature films and apps they created for the new "STEM Champions" pilot programme.

On the same day at Plant and Food Research's Lincoln site, soil scientist Dr Trish Fraser used potatoes to help 300 visiting local primary and intermediate pupils understand concepts like sustainable production, crop protection and food nutrition.

"We used the potato for the project because children can easily relate to them, especially through their love of chips," she said.

"This humble vegetable provides a great vehicle for explaining how plants are bred for different purposes, how we use scientific methods to fight pests and diseases, how growing plants can affect the environment, and the range of behind-the-scenes science that gets the crop from paddock to plate."

Dickinson is concerned many teachers still lack confidence.

"Many of the secondary schools I visit are desperate for science teachers, especially physics teachers.

"By not being able to recruit and train core science teachers in high schools, students are not gaining diverse experience in the different science subjects at the start of secondary school, making them much less likely to choose science later in their studies."

She notes Auckland University graduated just four physics teachers in 2014 and none graduated from Auckland University of Technology.

"We really aren't doing well in addressing the issues of low incentives to be a science teacher."

Science has a reputation for being a hard subject or requiring expensive equipment. "However, science is everywhere and lessons about scientific topics can be free and fun."

Fellow Auckland University scientist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, also well known for her tireless work with kids, is well aware it is still seen as something for geeks, or "just a list of boring facts".

"That's a culture issue that is hard to counter in a sports-mad country like New Zealand," the microbiologist says.

When visiting schools, she makes a point of showing pictures of scientists playing sports or in bands, interspersed with stock photographs of actors playing the cliched stereotype, garbed in lab coats.

"To them, scientists look like Einstein. Kids need to know that anyone can do science - not just old white men."

These perception problems have been factored into the planning of another big Government initiative, the Participatory Science Platform, which puts pupils - especially girls - face-to-face with working scientists.

This scheme, being piloted in South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago, takes the extra step of involving schools in local research projects, spanning from community conservation to natural hazard management.

"Many of these are relatively short-lived projects, but if you went out to a school like Rongomai, you would see the impact they are having on the kids," says the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, who is helping oversee it.

You just have to ask one fungi-obsessed 8-year-old who now wants to become a mycologist, he says.

It is too early to gauge the impact of A Nation of Curious Minds - steering such huge shifts in education is like "turning an oil tanker" - but he feels the cause is being won.

"We obviously can't prove that yet, but you'd have to be a pretty cynical person to think that we are not."

He acknowledges more data is needed to monitor the big picture, adding that New Zealand is now exploring an option to compare figures with a handful of other small advanced countries, including Ireland, Switzerland and Israel.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce expects there will be a lengthy period of evaluation and "fine tuning" before it can be judged successful or not.

"We are seeing a significant increase in the number of people studying [STEM subjects] at university, but we do need to keep working on attracting and retaining that interest at the school level."

Back in Tauranga, meanwhile, Ginders is keen to keep doing her bit.

Children or not, all of us need a little more science in our lives.

"Being informed with some information, some knowledge, some vocabulary about science and technology, I think, is essential for us."