Taking science outside the classroom brings success

Taking science outside the classroom is bringing rewards and awards for students and has created citizen science learning tools for future students of New Plymouth Girls’ High School.

At the suggestion of science teacher Athol Hockey, Year 13 students Breanna and Jessica began investigating how New Plymouth Girls’ High School could generate its own sustainable energy for use in electric vehicles (EVs).

The students won several science fair prizes and awards for the project, which involved monitoring the energy generation of solar panels and two types of wind turbines. They recorded the voltage, current, power and accumulative energy over seven weeks while also gathering weather data.  

Their project stemmed from a concurrent project involving the sustainable charging of batteries for the EVolocity competition.

Breanna says they took the opportunity suggested by Athol because they’re interested in sustainability and science.

“With so much coverage and attention on climate change and sustainability it was a good project for us. One of the reasons we did it was to show people how they can contribute towards a more sustainable future.”   

Jessica had also previously studied solar panels at intermediate. 

Athol, who’s enjoying using his master’s degree in environmental education in the classroom, is modest about his contribution but encourages other teachers to keep giving students ideas.

“I’m blown away by what these girls achieved. Obviously, I gave them a bit of help in the beginning and was able to use some funding to get them set up, but once they got the opportunity, they got stuck into it.”

Community and business support

A key part of the success of the project was Athol reaching out to the community for support. What started as one solar panel became five with a donation from local company Computer Sense. From there PowerCo donated an inverter, which allows teachers and students to monitor electricity generation.

“That is really helpful, more people can get educational benefit from it.” And there’s now even enough electricity being generated to charge some teachers’ EVs, should they wish to plug in.  

Jessica says they enjoyed the opportunity to develop a project away from the classroom. “You can follow your own method on where you are going to take a project without having guidelines.” 

The Koopa King EV races in the EVolocity schools challenge. Photo credit: Mark Robotham.

The students say their most interesting findings were that hotter temperatures reduced the energy output of solar panels, and that converting to solar panels is more affordable than they expected. 

In another part to the project, a group of Year 11 students used old bike parts, motors from ebikes and scrap metal to build and design two EVs, named Cyclops and Koopa King, as part of the EVolocity schools challenge, in which Cyclops qualified for the national finals event.

The students learnt how electrical connections and motors worked and used computer technology to programme their vehicle’s controller. They also learnt perseverance when the vehicles didn’t always start. 

Athol says the success of this project was also due to expertise and support from several businesses in the community, and he encourages other teachers to think about opportunities in their community.  

He says other students can now continue learning from the projects because they attracted donations from local people and companies.  

New Plymouth Girls’ High School is now generating a small amount of its own sustainable energy, which offsets its monthly power bill, and it would like to add more solar panels in future.

The work connects with other projects in the community towards sustainable energy by 2050 in Taranaki, he says.
“Hopefully it will carry on and become a bigger thing. Rather than it being a one-off project, we want to make a bigger impact.”

Project partners and supporters

  • Curious Minds Taranaki Participatory Science Platform via Venture Taranaki Trust
  • Computer Sense
  • Rivet Engineering
  • Egmont Industrial Supplies
  • Ecoinnovation
  • Plug n Play
  • e2bikes
  • Motiv Parts Supply
  • PowerCo
  • Open Polytechnic staff. 


Students monitor the solar panel and wind turbines at the Tūhonohono marae whare.

Students monitor the solar panel and wind turbines at the Tūhonohono marae whare.

How to create citizen science opportunities for students

New Plymouth Girls’ High School teacher Athol Hockey shares his advice for helping create authentic and meaningful learning experiences in science.

Athol Hockey

Q: Why is it important to provide these types of citizen science opportunities to students?

It allows students to experience some of the real world and how this can enhance their learning beyond the curriculum.

Q: What advice do you have for other teachers wanting to do the same?

Teachers should not be afraid to engage with people in the community and to seek practical advice from them to impart to their students. 

Q: How do you find out about what’s on offer?

You need to contact the agency and look at the offers and requirements for proposals for funding.

Q: How important is it to get support from HODs and principals?

It is essential as the support of HODs and the principal makes it a legitimate educational pursuit which will enhance not only students’ learning but that of teachers as well.

Q: How do you go about linking it to the curriculum? 

The New Zealand Curriculum encourages engagement with the community to make the students’ learning relevant in a changing world and future workplace. 

Q: What effect has this work had on the learning of your students?

It’s been very effective at engaging students in their science work. It has also made them appreciate the importance of the scientific world in real life and the generosity of the community.  

Q: You’ve connected with many organisations and businesses in the community. How has that added to the project?

Without the advice, financial assistance and time devoted by the organisations the project could not have happened. 

Q: What has been the most satisfying part of this work for you?

Seeing the engagement of the students and the ultimate success of the project(s) whether it was in competitions or science fair engagements.

Q: Why would you encourage other teachers to go out of the classroom with citizen science?

As teachers, we are also learners. I strongly recommend these types of projects, not only for the students but for teachers. Collaborating with the public and industry fosters positive relationships and leads to rich learning experiences with tangible educational benefits.

Get inspired

  • See more about these projects at Watt about the weather and what other schools are doing through Curious Minds. 
  • For continuing teachers’science education, see the Sir Paul Callaghan Academy and the Science Teachers Leadership Programme on the Curious Minds site. 
  • Find science teaching ideas and resources on Science Learning Hub.
  • Science Online TKI site has new resources to support teaching and learning in science. 
  • To get citizen science projects goingat your school talk to your local iwi, a science organisation or environmental community group and Curious Minds. 

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Source: Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero

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