Geoff McNamara's lacklustre high-school science teachers when he was young almost killed his passion and drive for the subject.
But it was the "very skilled and knowledgeable" people he learnt from as an apprentice in his late teens that inspired the Melrose High School science teacher to seek out working scientists and bring them into the classroom for his own students' benefit.
Mr McNamara began the Academic Curriculum Extension (ACE) Science program in 2008 to connect students from years eight to 10 with scientific mentors, giving them the chance to work in real laboratories on real research.
Seven years later, Mr McNamara has "collected" almost 100 scientists volunteering their time, inspired hundreds of students, and for his efforts was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools on Wednesday night – a first for an ACT teacher.
"It was just the apprenticeship model transported into a school setting and it's turned out to be extremely successful," he said.
The program taps into students' passion for specific scientific fields and pairs them with an expert. So far, projects have spanned biology, physics, rocketry, spatial science, and genetics.
"It's impossible for a science teacher to have expertise across all the branches of science," Mr McNamara said.
Known by his students as Mr Mac, his classroom isn't your typical high-school science lab.
Instead it's equipped with a seismometer, GPS antenna and weather station, each transmitting real-time data straight into the classroom.
He wants his students to acquire scientific literacy for the rest of their lives even if they never pursue a career in science.
"There's not a single aspect of your life that isn't dominated by science," he said. "We ignore science at our peril as a society.
"[But] I'm also very keen that we don't just regard science as a means for survival.
"My own passion is astronomy [but] astronomy never did anything practical … it's a cultural activity like art or music.
"We do it because it's intrinsically interesting and that's something I think we lose."
After the successful trial of two science mentor projects at Canberra College, Mr McNamara gained formal funding for the ACE program to expand.
"The ultimate goal would be to spread this model to as many schools as possible," he said. "It's been a bit of a tough climb but the school has always been behind us."
As well as donating their time, the academics and scientists Mr McNamara has recruited have also contributed most of the equipment used by students, even donating $24,000 to refit the laboratory.
"The academics realise that if they are going to get students into universities they need to target them at high school," he said.
"The academics by and large simply love doing what they do … they are so passionate about their field of research and when they get a student who shares that passion and says 'that is so cool' how can you knock them back?"
As well as recognising the "outstanding science" under way at the public school, Mr McNamara said $25,000 from the prize will refit the school's physics and bio lab in the science education centre launched earlier in the year.
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