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  • Rights: Venture Taranaki
    Published 28 May 2019 Referencing Hub media

    Classroom teacher Sue Fergus reflects on the impacts that a distillation project has had on her students’ learning in science and across the curriculum. Sue notes that the project has also increased her confidence in taking on other science projects.



    The students have had many different opportunities, and one of the most important ones of course was working with the experts. We worked with a guy called Jim Bennett, and he was able to guide the children into how to use the still and what molecules were, for example, and the different molecules, the different hydrosols and what they were used for.

    They’ve also been to see Jim Bennett’s still, which is of course a much larger scale than we are doing. Ours is more like a pot compared to his great big still, which took up a whole shed, and his condenser kind of went around the whole of the room, but the children were able to relate to it because they’ve used that same equipment. They went to Methanex as well, which is of course a much, much larger scale and they didn’t have condensers as such. They have these big drying racks, but the process of distilling was the same, so the children were actually able to link to it and understand exactly what the guy was talking about.

    The value that the children have got in working with scientists means that they are able to see themselves as scientists, so they wear the lab coats, they carry the clipboards, they’re doing the investigations, they’re asking the questions. Why does something happen? Why has this plant all of a sudden been able to have more essential oil than it did 6 months ago? So being able to work with scientists and the experts, it means that they don’t always rely on the teacher, because children have a great habit of thinking the teacher knows everything, but by working with experts, they see that actually other people know it as well.

    This project, for me personally as a teacher, has been … it’s been amazing. I have even seen myself as a scientist, and the science process all of a sudden has taken some true meaning. We’ve been able to hypothesise and guess what we think is going to happen – and often it didn’t – but just being able to, the actual process of it has been great.

    So the children have made amazing progress in lots of different curriculum areas, because with distilling, there’s reading, there’s writing, there’s maths and finally it’s actually using it in a real-life context, and so multiplication tables don’t really mean anything, but when you are trying to find out the difference between two different measurements in mls or the weights of different plant material, it just brings it all to life.

    Children love the idea that they are scientists. They love donning on the lab coat, and often the pencil goes behind the ear. They do see themselves truly as scientists, and they love delving into questions and wanting to know the difference and wanting to know why this is happening, and that is why the experts were so important because I didn’t know.

    This project has been very engaging for the children because they’re actually making things that they can use. So we are making hydrosols and essential oils. We’re using them in the diffusers in the classroom. We are using them in the – as cleaning products – just as we are becoming much more sustainable in the way we are living.

    I feel that my ability as a teacher in now taking on other scientific projects has certainly made me a lot more confident in this area.

    When we first started this project, we had a little lavender hedge outside the library. It had 10 plants in it, and every year we used to make little lavender bags. But I wanted to do something more, and I knew that the children could really get their teeth into a different project so I wondered about distilling. I brought along a candle that had a really nice smell to it, and I said to the children, “How do you think the smell got there?” And no one knew until a little girl piped up and said well actually, her nana had a perfume factory. And so the other children scoffed at her and said, “Well there’s no such thing as a perfume factory, that’s not true.” So we went and visited Pihama Lavender and saw how they extracted the essential oil from out of the lavender, and from there, the whole project blossomed. The children wanted to know more, they wanted to know, well, what other plants could they use to distil.

    The communication of this project outside of school has really been by word of mouth with the children. So they have made brochures to inform parents and grandparents and community members of what each of the hydrosols are for. They have also been able to communicate their ideas at Puke Ariki, which was a group of people who had come together through Curious Minds, and they were talking about their distillation progress – process – and what they had learned, and the children’s enthusiasm is very contagious and so adults get very caught up in it all and they love to listen to the children. The children are able to explain things on a very basic level and easy enough for adults to understand, especially those who really have not been involved in any distillation so really who don’t know how things work.

    I suppose one of the barriers for this whole project has actually been the time. So you do reading, writing and maths and then there was distilling. But until we were able to actually include the reading, writing, maths in the distilling, it just became another thing that we had to do. But the children’s eagerness and their enthusiasm meant that we were distilling most days, and it just all came out throughout the distillation progress – the reading happened, the writing happened. So it no longer became an add-on, it was an actual way of learning.

    Toko School – the students, staff and Toko School community
    Venture Taranaki
    Participatory Science Platform, Curious Minds – He Hihiri i te Mahara

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