A million-dollar donation is helping Australian teachers inspire disadvantaged students in maths and science class.
On one of his first training placements as a young maths and science teacher, Eric Tran received a first glimpse of just how tough his new job might be.
“I wanted the students to copy down one sentence – one sentence – that was in a PowerPoint presentation about stem cells. And the first thing I heard was, ‘Sir, why are you making us write so much?’”
It came as a shock. “I thought, ‘You’re in Year 10 – how have you not written more than one sentence?’”
It was an early reminder to rely more on the real-world application of ideas he had learnt in his Master of Teaching as a recipient of one of the University of Sydney’s Eureka Benevolent Foundation Scholarships. These scholarships support outstanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students throughout their master’s degree, and for two years afterwards if they go on to teach in a low socioeconomic status (SES) school.
The scholarships are possible thanks to a generous donation of $1 million from the University’s Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson and her husband Roger Massy-Greene through their Eureka Benevolent Foundation. They made the donation in 2015 to address the critical lack of STEM teachers in low SES schools, as well as the drop in students choosing those subjects in high school.
“By providing disadvantaged schools with access to the best and brightest STEM teachers, we hope to equip children, regardless of their socioeconomic background, with the necessary skills to participate in the economy of the future,” the Chancellor said at the time of the gift.
Associate Professor Judy Anderson is the director of the University’s STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy, another initiative funded by philanthropy – this one through an anonymous gift. She says the goal of the Eureka Scholarships is “to provide STEM role models for students who may not have a STEM professional in their immediate family or network”.
Some children in lower SES schools come from families where no-one has ever attended university. And there could be other issues at play, such as intergenerational unemployment. “One way to break the cycle is to get these students to stay at school and do these sorts of subjects and see if there is a viable pathway to go to university or follow some other STEM career path,” says Anderson.
The Eureka Benevolent Foundation Scholarships are awarded to seven students each year. As the students graduate and enter the workforce, they will form a cohort of teachers equipped to inspire students in low SES schools across the state. Already, graduates of the program are embarking on teaching careers in places from Granville to Albury.
These kids don’t have time to go to tutoring because they have jobs. So the only time they can learn is actually in class.
Tran grew up in Canley Vale in western Sydney, the son of two chefs. He got such good marks at school that his aunts asked him to help their children with maths and science. In Year 10, he joined a program at his school which asked seniors to help younger students from Chinese backgrounds learn English. Even so, it hadn’t occurred to him to go to university until a teacher suggested it.
While studying for his Bachelor of Advanced Science and Honours in Biochemistry and Technology at the University of Sydney, he continued tutoring. He decided to pursue teaching, partly inspired by his students. “They were like, ‘Sir, I really learnt a lot today’. And they were going home telling parents what they learnt. It was exciting to hear. So I thought, I’ll do a Master of Teaching and see where I go from there.”
The scholarship provided Tran not just with extra funds that allowed him to devote more time to his studies, but also guided him to a school where he was most needed. Now 26, he teaches classes of about 25 students at the co-educational Arthur Phillip High School in Parramatta. Even though he has been teaching in one form or another for half his life, he says his work there is even more rewarding than he had hoped.
“It’s a lot better than I expected, because of the school I’m at … These kids don’t have time to go to tutoring because they have to go to jobs at Maccas or whatever. So the only time they can learn is actually in class. So if I can provide everything that I can for them, then that’s meaningful.”
Tran tells his students he is “opening doors for them” but says he has learnt a lot from them too, going back to his teenage years tutoring English, when he learnt to be patient. “Sometimes it would take 20 minutes for them to read one sentence. That’s when I learnt that sometimes it will take a little longer for some people to learn things than others. And that’s perfectly fine.”
He’s still learning from his students at Arthur Phillip High School. “They constantly remind me to include real-life context. And they keep me humble. They keep me realistic. Not everybody can do the hardest mathematics questions but I keep on bringing them activities that I can do to show them. I try to make my lessons fun. They’re learning and I’m learning as well.”