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Episode thirty five

Episode 35: Brewongle - where technology and ecology collide 

Joachim Cohen:

Welcome to the "Virtual Staffroom," a podcast made for teachers, by teachers, and all with the dash of educational technology thrown in. My name is Joachim Cohen, and today Yvette Poshoglian and I have hit the road and are coming to you live from an environmental education center in Western Sydney. Brewongle! To begin, we would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands in which we are recording today. The Boorooberongal people of the Dharug Nation, and pay respect to elders, past, present, and also pay our respect to other traditional elders and other indigenous peoples on whose country or through whose country this broadcast will travel.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Joining us on today's podcast is Steven Body, Principal of Brewongle, as well as Diahnn Borazio, a teacher and their school's Digital Classroom Officer. Steven, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey? How have you ended up here?

Steven Body:

Oh, I got half an hour? I started my adult life after school as a bit of a traveler, adventurer, outdoor educator, and then eventually got sick of living under canvas after about 10 years. And so I went and did some teacher training and my journey led me into PE teaching, which didn't grab me overly much, and I moved into science teaching. I was a high school science teacher for many years, and I used to bring my students out here on excursion to Brewongle and discovered what an incredible place it was. What an amazing job that EECS did in education of our students.

And I applied for the job here as a teacher 13 years ago and was successful and I haven't left. This place is incredible, just the physical environment, but also the work we do here with students in connecting a lot of urban students in Western Sydney and a lot of migrant students, connecting them to nature, giving them experiences that they wouldn't have and being able to help schools deliver curriculum and leadership and wellbeing outcomes that they can't necessarily do at school.

So it's my dream and perfect job and I love it. And I'm passionate about environmental education. I have a postgraduate diploma in environmental management. And I'm really into ecology and it's fantastic place to work and teach students.

Yvette Poshoglian:

And Diahnn, what about your pathway to Brewongle?

Diahnn Borazio:

I'm a primary school teacher, formally an assistant principal, I'm on leave from that position. And back in the day I was a computer coordinator for many years. I was also a teacher librarian for five years early in my career. And that role was heavily focused on technology integration into the library program. So you'd study great literature and marry that with creating multimedia presentations and websites and webquests and learn all about the information literacy process. And I also had a big part in supporting teachers in their technology journeys from introducing the first interactive whiteboards, iPads in classrooms, wireless access points in the school notebooks, all of those sorts of things.

However, I've always had a huge love of nature and science and I feel extremely privileged to be working with an amazing team at Brewongle to connect every learner to the natural world and to inspire change for a sustainable future, which is the vision here, and I feel like we do that every single day. I love that every day students get to solve real world problems through hands-on experiences and really authentic learning here. And that's my journey to Brewongle.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh wow. Gee, whiz. I think anyone who comes here is going to be overtaken by the passion of both of you, and it must exude through all the programs that you deliver. And I can already start to see some links to technology that I'm sure you're going to bring in, Diahnn, and I can't wait to get to talk about that. But before we get there, like you were saying, Steven, we're only about less than two hours from Sydney. We're immersed in this amazing natural environment. Can you tell all of our listeners a little bit about some of the programs that you deliver here and what students and staff can come and experience?

Steven Body:

Certainly. So Brewongle Environmental Education Center is part of a wider network in New South Wales. There's 24 environmental and zoo education centers around the state, which are there to look after teachers. There's pretty much one nearby to you wherever you are, with the exception of some of the far Western schools. And we come out to visit you. Brewongle, we're in northwest Sydney. We are here in beautiful sandstone country where the Cumberland Plain folds up into the Blue Mountains on the edge of Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River We deliver programs in curriculum-based areas. We do primarily geography, history and science, lots of Aboriginal culture. We're a kind of a hub for Aboriginal culture, and we have very close connections to the Dharug community. And our excursions are all hands-on, it's all field work, it's all outside. Occasionally we might take students undercover if it's raining or into our classroom.

All our classrooms are outdoor classrooms, yarning circles. We offer day trips and camp experiences, so you can bring your students here on camp. A particular focus for us in recent years has been wellbeing and it's been a real need in schools over the last three years of challenges. So schools come out here just to be in this beautiful environment, and I know you can't see it, but Brewongle was previously successful North public school and it's been a public education institution for 155 years now. We had our150th anniversary in 2018. There are still some students alive that came to this school. We have a beautiful sandstone heritage building and five acres of bush and then countless other acres of bush thanks to the generosity of our beautiful neighbors. Plus we kayak on Dyarubbin, known Hawkesbury River. We go into schools, we do all the education for Blacktown City Council. It keeps us busy. And as are all the ECS around the state, they're amazing resources with highly talented teaching staff.

Yvette Poshoglian:

We are in a really unusual setting. This is the most atmospheric principles office I've ever been in. We've got sandstone walls. Honestly, it's just incredible, Steven and Diahnn. But it does present some incredible opportunities for bringing that technology, the sustainability elements together with this beautiful natural environment that Brewongle sits in. How is this changing or impacting on the teaching and learning, and what are the possibilities are here, Diahnn?

Diahnn Borazio:

As I mentioned before, our vision is to connect every learner to the natural world and inspire change for a sustainable future. Our intention is to use technology to enhance that nature connection and therefore to better understand the natural world and how to care for it. So we'll use tech instruments on a daily basis that assist students to measure chemical, physical, biological parameters of the Hawkesbury River, for example, depth finders and range finders. We'll use photometers to measure nitrates and phosphate levels of the river. TDS for total dissolved salts. We'll use, for example, there's a leadership day on today, and they're out on an ecological treasure hunt and they're using GPS and they're using walkie talkies and you can hear them out the window and it's sheer joy. But I think the goal is to just marry the technology really seamlessly into the bush environment.

And when there's that element of fun, you see kids pick up the technology because it's purposeful. They know they have to use it. There's an end goal, like I said before, all that interdisciplinary learning, that authentic learning, you're using it as a tool to get you to that end point, which is so very important. But yeah, so binoculars just with year one students in a public school the other day to get up close to nature and observe animals in their natural environment. The iPads, for example, the iBook, Joe that we were talking that you were helping me with this morning. So Nurragingy is the most beautiful place. And tomorrow, for example, we have stage two students at Nurragingy Reserve and they become little Nurragingy ecologists for a day.

And I think what's so fascinating is they've got the binoculars for one activity and it's the most incredible thing to watch. But even with the iPads, you put an iPad in the hands of these kids and you tell them that we are assessing the health of the ecosystem here at Nurragingy . And these iBooks, it's got a dichotomous key and it's going to help us to identify the natives and the weeds in the area. And they'll go through and they'll use that plant ID iBook. And at the end of the day, you take that iBook away and you say, "All right, ecologists, you tell me what are the names of the native plants in this area and what are the weeds and what are the recommendations for the council?" And the passion and connection to using tech, but not taking away from that connection. Because now they actually know all the native plants in the area. They know the weeds that need to be taken away.

It just works beautifully because of the purpose behind it. And we'll use iPad apps like to measure tree height or annotate images or create digital media. The kids today will make their iMovies, leadership iMovies to take back to school. And we have our QR codes for evaluations that they use the iPads to scan. We've got amazing nest box cameras that Steve will talk about. Yeah. But I think we're on the right track using tech every day to enhance the nature connection. But yeah, Steve's going to talk about a lot of other things as well.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh, Diahnn, I think it's phenomenal to hear how technology is not used just for technology's sake, but it's really used to empower and build students' knowledge, build their passion. And it almost sounds like it falls into the background. Because you're not using it because, "Oh, we're going to use the tech because we need to." It's like, well, actually we are going to use it because it's going to help you to learn and understand and then measure and report and have these exciting visions for what students want to do in the future. I know you were talking about what happens on some of your excursions in the amazing areas you work at in the Blacktown area and how students come away full of passion and with the knowledge about what needs to change.

Diahnn Borazio:

Absolutely. One little girl walked up on a Nurragingy day and she said to David and I, "Do you know what I want to be when I grow up?" And I knew what the answer was going to be. And we said, "What?" And she said, "An ecologist." We won. That's it. It's what it's all about. And that's what we do here.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh, amazing. What you are already doing, I know, it blows us away, but what are you planning to do during 2023? Steve, what plans do you have for the use of technology?

Steven Body:

Well, the challenge for us with technology is managing it all, ensuring it's working when we need it. Dan and I were talking this morning and I used the analogy of a firetruck or an ambulance that has to go out on an emergency. Everything has to work on that truck when you need it. And for us, that's the challenge. We don't have time in the morning to troubleshoot 30 iPads that don't have the app we want on it. So it's learning to manage them well. That's one of our challenges this year. And thankfully we have the lovely tool of Apple Classroom that you've introduced us to Joe, which is going to help us with that. And then of course in the background, there's the management programs like Champ Pro and Apple School Manager, which have their own challenges as any teacher in schools knows.

And the challenge is not the program, it's probably the lack of use from us that we might only use it once a month and you forget what you did the previous month and you just want to be able to do something quickly, but it doesn't always happen. So for us, I mean, Diahnn's mentioned a lot of the technology. We're going to continue to use some of the things we do use, and I just wanted to mention our senior students. So biology students come here and do a depth study on our ecosystem and look at interactions of two species. But one of the activities they do is they use technology to do a fauna survey of Brewongle, two sort of versions of a fauna survey. One is we have wildlife cameras that are infrared cameras that are set up in the bush and they record data for a week and overnight when everything comes out. And the kids analyze that data and try and ID all the animals that we catch at night. But then also one of the activities they do during the day is they have cameras on poles and iPads that are connected to those cameras and they can go and put these poles in our habitat boxes and any nests they find around the site.

And so part of the challenge is to find the boxes. So they use a handheld GPS and the navigation skills that we can teach them to find these boxes just as an ecologist would. And then analyze the contents. And whether they see an actual animal, which they often do, or they might see evidence of an animal scats or which is poo or nests. And then that becomes part of their studies and data they collect, which it's an amazing activity.

And in terms of evolution, it started as a CCTV camera with a massive backpack full of battery and cables to the end of the pole. And then it evolved to a GoPro. And now we've gone beyond GoPros where there are actually companies manufacturing habitat box cameras. And so we've now purchased some of them, which connect to our fleet of iPads, which are just amazing. So for us, it's going to be utilizing them because we've only just got them last year and ensuring they're used by as many programs as we can utilizing the management tools and Diahnn's creativity and whatever else comes next. What were we just talking about audio walks and podcasting like this. Fantastic.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Well, speaking of the cameras and the evolution of the technology that you are using, I know that you've got some plans, the 360 camera use, what are you thinking, guys?

Steven Body:

So the 360 camera has been amazing tool for us during lockdown when we couldn't teach kids in the outdoors and lots of students couldn't even get outdoors where they were living, we would provide virtual excursions. And as part of the virtual excursion, we recorded 360 images of our forest with sound. And so the students at home mildly, it's not same as coming here, but they could immerse themselves in the forest and do some of their depth studies. We had a full virtual excursion, so biology students could do a depth study, geography, students could do their river ecology, biophysical interactions topic. So the 360 cameras were amazing for that. And identifying trees in the image. Measuring tree height, doing a transect, which looks at spatial distribution of species. Amazing use of this technology that came to the fore during lockdown.

The other way we used the 360 camera is in a full site tour of Brewongle. So we've developed a full 360 tour and an immersive tour that you can view through VR goggles or just on a computer screen. And it's really handy for preparing students that might have anxieties about coming to camp, students with special needs. They can see where the toilets are, they can see where they're going to park the bus, where they're going to sleep, discover their classrooms. And so these students that might have a lot of anxiety about coming somewhere new now can see it all beforehand. And as an example, we had some beautiful students from a Blacktown school arrive from the autism unit, and these students got off the bus and we met them and we're about to walk them down to Brewongle and the students, "Oh no, we know the way, it's okay, we'll show you."

Yvette Poshoglian:

They just had a second sense about it. They've already been here really virtually.

Steven Body:

Yes. Yeah.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Oh, that's fantastic.

Joachim Cohen:

Well, look, that is a one amazing way of schools being able to access some of the amazing experience that you've got with the technology they have back on their sites. And I'm just wondering, have you got any tips for schools who've got some of the technology that you've got? They might have some iPads or computers or other forms of technology as to how they can really jump in and start to really do some things with environmental studies around their own schools.

Diahnn Borazio:

Hey, Joe, look, STEM projects that embed sustainability and that support environmental projects in the school give students real world problems to solve that matter to them and that make a difference to their world. But first, teach them to care about their world, get them outside. Read literature with environmental focus, watch out and for video clips, use images of the natural world for writing stimulus. When children have an appreciation for their planet, they will dive into projects determined to create solutions for a better world. And all you need to do is just share a bit of passion for the natural world, and they will just get on board so easily. And I think having worked at Barong I've really also learned how to teach inquiry-based learning really effectively and how to create learning experiences that solve those real world problems. If I had my time again in the classroom, I'd have a range of fieldwork tools at the ready.

I'd have binoculars, I'd have microscopes, and I'd have my students explore their local environment often, understand the environmental issues in their area, and I'd design projects that allow them to become part of the solution in their local areas. I saw an incredible aeroponics first soil STEM challenge on the stem.T4L SharePoint, and I think there's no better starting point than that. Yeah, it was just amazing. How can you grow the best, safest, and most reliable food for the future of the planet? And yeah, those videos were just super exciting. But yeah, that would be my advice.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh my gosh, unbelievable. Absolutely. There's no barriers anymore to students being able and teachers being able to engage with exciting things no matter what site they're on, they can connect with the environment that's around them. And I can tell you, Yvette, I've been so inspired by everything that Steven and Diahnn have said and the passion that you exude. If I was anywhere near Brewongle, I think I would be booking in or booking into my local EEC to be inspired.

Diahnn Borazio:

Watch the phones guys.

Joachim Cohen:

That's exactly right.

Steven Body:

Take it off answering machine. Thanks. Thanks for the plug.

Joachim Cohen:

Absolutely. Thank you so much once again, and we'll make sure we put lots of links to all of your resources inside our show notes, and we can't wait to see your next 360 degree tour. That's for sure.

Diahnn Borazio:

Thanks everyone.

Joachim Cohen:

So Yvette, we've come to the end of another edition of the "Virtual Staff Room." And as we do, does your school have a story to tell? Do you need a visit from the "Virtual Staff Room." team? We would absolutely love to hear from you. This podcast has been produced by the masterful Jacob Drew with the assistance and supreme coordination of the Technology 4 Learning team.. Stay awesome, everyone. Get out into your local environment and thanks for joining us.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Just a little note, please be aware that all views expressed by the podcast presenters, that's us, are our personal opinions and not representative of the New South Wales Department of Education. Discussions aren't endorsements of third party products, services, or events. And please note that as much as we sound like it, we are not experts in legalese tech speak or anything in between. We are just passionate people keen to boost technology for learning in the classroom and to help build the skills in your students and for you to solve the problems of tomorrow. Do your due diligence, read further, and if we've got something wrong, let us know. We too are always learning and always improving.