Teaching and learning

Cracking the code to engaging science classes

In a bid to bring genetics lessons to life, IEU member and St Josephs Catholic College Broken Bay Teacher David Terry hit the mark using live mice. But if you lack a supply of pure breed rodents, his multimedia simulation has a similar effect, writes IE Journalist Tara de Boehmler.

The Biology, Science and Technology Teacher has spent about 30 years building up a collection of pure breeding mice and chickens, which take up prime real estate out the back of his family home.

“I became interested when I was working in Milperra, in Sydney, and the Science Coordinator – a nun – told me genetics was boring and that I needed to make it more interesting. I obtained some white mice and some black mice from the CSIRO and asked my students to guess what would happen if we crossed them.”

The exercise surprised David and captivated his students.

“I expected them all to be black and most of my students predicted that the first batch would be grey. All of them turned out to be grey. We then crossed the greys and got three quarters non-grey (black, grey, brown and cinnamon) and the rest were albino.

“Science education is about changing kids’ understanding of genetics by providing them with credible evidence, but this also showed that things are not always as simple as we think.

“The kids were so interested and engaged,” David says.

“The traditional way of teaching Science can often be about students learning answers rather than asking questions. Students are asked to read this or look at that diagram and answer these questions but the research is saying the students are not getting the benefit from these approaches. Concrete, first hand experimental investigation is the way to go.”

David started collecting pure breeding mice from pet shops and the CSIRO – and people began giving them to him.

There is so much to learn through trial and error and stumbling across it. I am also still learning all the time.

When he started teaching at all-girls’ school Mount St Joseph’s College, he found his students were just as interested and his collection reached impressive proportions.

But now he is downsizing and, with the Animal Research Act making it impossible for others to source pure breeds for similar purposes, he has developed a technology-based solution.

His ‘MouseGen’ program simulates cross breeding experiments with live mice. Using video clips, photographs, animations, audio and annotated photographic diagrams, David says it “allows numerous students to access a learning experience that had previously only been provided for a single class at a time”.

In a PhD he completed through the University of Newcastle Adolescent females assessment of and learning gains from researcher developed mouse genetics multimedia simulation (MouseGen), David spells out the benefits of using a multi-media simulation.

“Unlike a first-hand investigation, the mouse breeding simulation can be explored in a short period of time, like three 50-minute lessons. Given that most students will not participate in a real monohybrid genetics investigation in their high school science experience, the MouseGen multimedia simulation offers an opportunity for students to engage in an experiment which their classroom teacher is not able to provide.”

David is in the process of developing an app and says the internet has proven to be a “powerful tool” for his work.

“Now everything I do is based on the internet. I put videos on YouTube and would like to make more of this available for other kids around the world.”

But while apps and the internet have their place, David’s main advice is to “get everyone off their bums and have them do something first hand that’s experimental”.

They might want to bring chickens, rabbits, frogs or lizards in to observe and, while breeding experiments using live animals might be out, David says there are plenty of opportunities to involve students in investigations using plants.

“The fruit shop is a great resource for studying genetics. I tell students to check out the different shapes and colours of tomatoes, eggplants and capsicums. Later they can look up what they’ve discovered.”

His own garden poses many questions, such as ‘Why do some chilies grow up while others point down, and which gene is dominant?’ along with genetic peculiarities like stripey tomatoes, black corn and purple peas.

He even proffered a box of blue and green eggs during his IE interview.

“There is so much to learn through trial and error and stumbling across it. I am also still learning all the time.

“Students just love to connect with living things.”


Mouse Genetics Animation, by David Terry


iSpring Free – the program David uses to bring his presentation to life


Southern Biological – innovative products tailored for Science teachers


Diggers Club – for ordering plant seeds