Can you tell us about “Suzie the Scientist” and “Millie the Mathematician”?
We recently created two new learn-to-read book series based around a couple of ‘cool’ and engaging characters, namely “Suzie the Scientist” and “Millie the Mathematician”. The Suzie books and associated digital resources (i.e. interactive e-books, video books and online books) were designed to engage children and their parents (!) in scientific ideas and concepts whilst, at the same time, developing and improving reading literacies and fluency for students in the earliest years of schooling. The Millie books (and associated digital resources) were designed to achieve the same outcomes in the context of mathematics.
The choice of female characters was deliberate. The need to engage girls and provide female role models, even at the youngest of ages, in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is a high priority for us as STEM educators. It is also a high priority for ensuring the future prosperity of our country, particularly if Australia is going to remain competitive in the 21st century knowledge economy.
As a former Dean of the Griffith Sciences Group at Griffith University, I was acutely aware (at the time) that only 8 and 11 percent of our IT and Engineering students, respectively, were female.
My sincere hope is that Suzie and Millie can positively contribute to the crucial developmental reading stages for all our children (both girls and boys) and start them on a path toward scientific, technological and mathematical literacy.
What’s so unique about your idea?
There are many unique aspects about the Suzie and Millie resources. The availability of the books on multiple digital platforms is one. Teachers can choose to use the hard copy print books for in-class guided reading tasks or as take-home-readers for use at home. Alternatively, they can choose to use their classroom smartboards to take advantage of the video books and interactive online books – free of charge! In addition, parents at home can download the interactive e-books onto their mobile or tablet devices from the Apple i-Books store (coming soon to Android devices). All have audio narration and Suzie/Millie voice-over options.
Secondly, the overt engagement and empowerment of parents and the broader community is another unique aspect of the Suzie and Millie resources. Our community partners in this project are P&Cs Qld and Rotary Australia. Both organisations see the value of active involvement of parents, grandparents and caregivers in the learning process; and both actively support the dissemination of these resources by connecting with local schools and local communities.
The books contain useful advice about reading strategies as well as information about the specific science/maths concepts addressed in each book and how they link to classroom activities, the Australian Curriculum and student learning. In addition, the Suzie and Millie characters, themselves, also present interesting and engaging science/maths facts and ideas to stimulate and facilitate further conversations about science and maths – thus enriching the overall learning experience for kids.
Thirdly, the books are written by Australian educators for Australian classrooms and Australian homes. The authors have collectively drawn on their experiences as STEM educators, early childhood teachers and parents to create an interesting and diverse range of books using uniquely Australian content and contexts.
How did the idea for “Suzie the Scientist” and “Millie the Mathematician” come about?
When we started this project, I had a five-year-old in Prep and a six-year-old in Year 1. I also had an 18-year-old studying maths and science at Griffith University. When it came time for the little ones to bring home their home-reader books from school, I was scarily reminded of the experiences from 13 years prior, when the eldest brought home banal, boring and seriously flawed home-reader books completely disconnected with the curriculum and other activities happening in the classroom or in their lives.
The original intent was to produce interesting home-reader books with engaging content and contexts relevant to Australian children, Australian families and the Australian education system. I also wanted the home-reading process to be engaging and relevant for the parents, grandparents and caregivers who facilitate this process.
As a science educator, I know first-hand how science can be an engaging context to stimulate ongoing conversations with children that result in deeper, more engaging, learning experiences – including learning to read. Hence the birth of Suzie the Scientist. Following the immediate (and huge) success of Suzie, we felt there was scope to expand into other contexts – hence the birth of Suzie’s little sister, Millie the Mathematician.
The home-reader concept has taken off; but it turns out that the books are being used in multiple ways using multiple digital modes not originally intended by the creators. For example, after the Education Minister (the Honourable Grace Grace) launched the pilot project in Qld (with just the hard copy print books), we had immediate feedback that digital versions of the books were required for use in multiple modes and available on multiple platforms. We subsequently developed the video books, the online books and the interactive e-books – which are now all available.
Are there any plans for new characters in the series?
Not yet, although there is talk of adding Terrie the Technologist and Evie the Engineer to complete the Girl-Power STEM Squad. It has also been suggested (rightly so) that young girls are not the only children needing positive role models in science and maths; young boys do as well. Perhaps Steve the Scientist and Max the Mathematician??
Who do you think will use “Suzie the Scientist” and “Millie the Mathematician”?
Children, parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, teacher aids etc. …. Anyone with an interest in providing our kids with the greatest academic gift of all – the ability to read. Also, anyone interested in establishing a pathway for scientific, mathematical and technological literacy of our children.
Ideally, every child in every primary school and every home in Australia would engage with Suzie and Millie when learning to read.
How does reading the e-books facilitate children’s learning?
It does this in several ways….. First and foremost the books are levelled readers; but they are a new take on levelled readers, offering multiple avenues of learning opportunities (including cross-curricula opportunities in Science, Maths and English) using multiple modes of engagement (including overt parental engagement) across multiple platforms (including digital and print platforms).
Levelled readers are used extensively in Australian schools to facilitate the learning-to-read process. They tend to be organized in levels of complexity with respect to language, vocabulary, punctuation, sentence structure and number of words. Beginner or emergent readers will start with simple (low complexity) books and work their way through to more complex books.
In terms of the levelled nature of the Suzie and Millie books, the intended outcomes are similar to other resources in terms of:
• promoting regular reading habits;
• promoting fun and enjoyment in reading; and
• improving reading literacies and fluency.
However, the digital versions of the books (particularly the interactive e-Books), the overt parental engagement and the deliberate links to other subjects within the Australian Curriculum offer children a more diverse and richer learning experience. Learning to read in the context of science and maths facilitates student success in other parts of the curriculum and sets them on path for success in the technologically disrupted 21st century.
The audio narration (controlled by the reader) allows children to stop and start when they like, and greatly assists with vocabulary, fluency, tone, expression and appropriate interpretation of punctuation. The Suzie/Millie voice-overs (again controlled by the reader) facilitate parental involvement and stimulate further discussion to enrich the overall learning experience.
In schools, we have found that the digital resources are not only being used on smartboards in Prep – Year 2 classes (the intended age range) but they are also being used as stimulus material for higher year levels when introducing topics within the Science and Maths curricula – a use not originally intended by the creators.
Can you give us a little background on your career to date?
I graduated from the University of Wollongong (my hometown) with a BSc (Hons) (Chemistry) in 1988 and a PhD in Electroanalytical Chemistry in 1992. During my post-doctoral studies, I was fortunate enough to be offered positions at Oxford University as a Senior Lecturer in Physical Chemistry (Keble College) and as a Research Scholar (University College).
I returned to the University of Wollongong as an Australian Research Council Fellow in 1995 and was appointed to Griffith University in 1996. In 2005, my career took a slight detour toward science education and outreach. I created and led the Science on the GO! outreach program and the Griffith Science Education Alliance program (programs I continue to lead to this day).
I had a great thrill in 2007 when appointed as a Queensland-Smithsonian Fellow at the National Science Recourses Centre at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. I came back from DC and was seconded to the Australian Academy of Science (Canberra) as Managing Director of the national Science by Doing education project for secondary schools. I returned to my role at Griffith and, in 2013, was appointed Dean (Learning and Teaching) for the Griffith Sciences Group at Griffith University. I stepped down from the role in 2016 to assume the Leadership of the Queensland STEM Education Network.
I’ve managed to pick up a few gongs along the way including: two Australian Awards for University Teaching (2012, 2016); being named a Queensland Science Champion (in its inception year of 2014); winner of the Australian Entrepreneurial Educator of the Year Award (B-HERT, 2011); the Business Higher Education Round Table Award for Best Community Partnership (2011); the Australian Science Teachers Association Award for Service to Science Education (2009); the Peter Doherty Award for Excellence in Science and Science Education (2008); the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Award for Excellence in Chemical Education (2008); the Griffith University Service Award (inaugural recipient in 2008); the Queensland-Smithsonian Fellowship (2007); the Science Teachers Association of Queensland Medal for Excellence in Science Education (2006);; the Australian Research Council Post-doctoral Fellowship (1995) and the Australian Academy of Science-Royal Society Endeavour Fellowship (1992).
What sparked your passion for working in science education?
One turning point was a hot day on the cricket field, playing for the Southport Labrador Tigers, back in 2004. I was the wicket keeper; my captain was fielding at first slip (next to me). He was (still is) a primary school teacher and we started a discussion on the cricket field that day about how best to engage primary school kids in science. We decided to bring experiments and science demonstrations from the University direct to the school. The students loved it; the teachers loved it even more! What followed was a series travelling science shows and workshops to local schools supported by hands-on professional development of teachers on the science behind the fun.
In 2005, we established Science on the GO! (Griffith University’s science outreach program) and the Griffith Science Alliance (designed primarily for teacher professional learning in science and science education). Since then, in excess of half a million students and teachers have been engaged by these programs.
The name of my cricket captain that day; Randall Hall – one of the authors of the Suzie and Millie books.
What is the favourite part of your job?
Engaging kids in the wonders (and fun!) of science is easily the most favourite part of the job.
What’s the most challenging?
Creating, writing and publishing the Suzie the Scientist and Mille the Mathematician early reader series have been the most challenging projects I have worked on in my career. For me, Millie was actually harder than Suzie; for Randall it was the opposite. Writing children’s books, especially levelled reader books, is much more difficult than one might think. Add to that, the need to align to learning outcomes from the Australian Curriculum and the challenge becomes that much harder.
Do you have any plans for the future?
The rapid and broad uptake of these books across Australian primary schools has given us the impetus to expand and extend the scope of the current resources. We are currently producing additional classroom resources for each book in the series that can be used in conjunction with the print and/or digital versions.
There are also plans to go international and we are in discussion with potential partners in the US and the UK to expand the concept to international contexts and international curricula.
Where can people reach you?
People can reach me on the Contact page of the websites or they can email me directly (email@example.com)
About Suzie the Scientist and Millie the Mathematician
Affordable, interactive e-books with full audio narration and Suzie/Millie voice-over are available for download from the i-Books Store. Hard copy print books are also available for schools or for use at home. Video and online versions for use on classroom smartboards are also available free of charge.