“The little kids toot as I go past and when we line up I say ‘all aboard the STEAM train,’ which doesn’t make for a quiet lesson but it sure makes a fun one,” Burtenshaw, STEAM K-6 teacher and facilitator at St Bernard’s Primary School in New South Wales says.
St Bernard’s is a co-ed Catholic school situated in Bateman’s Bay. Many of the 390 students come from low socio-economic families.
“We’re just doing our best with minimal funds, like I suppose everyone is,” Jacqui Heffernan, principal at the school, says.
Despite the challenges, it is a school that Burtenshaw has called home for the past 22 years and over that time, she has been on quite the STEAM journey.
The irony, given Burtenshaw’s tech success, is that she lives quite a withdrawn existence herself.
“I live off-grid because I want to live a sustainable and simple life,” she explains.
“When I started this tech journey I didn’t even have a smartphone and, yes, my students did think it was hilarious, but I knew I had to change to give the students I teach the best chance at success,” she says.
Since then, Burtenshaw has made some huge changes at the school. According to her award nomination, the passionate teacher has built a Makerspace and Outdoor Tinkering Studio which integrates technology into the curriculum.
She runs a lunch time Code Club and coaches a robotics team, not to mention the life forms study space she’s established, where she works with students to study the biodiversity of the area using technology to collect data.
She has also set up an automated hydroponic garden using Arduino and Raspberry Pi and is working on the establishment of a Meteorologist Team to collect and use weather data using BBC Microbits.
Heffernan says she’s enjoyed watching Burtenshaw’s transformation over the years, as well as the school’s.
“She’s very passionate about everything, whatever she takes on she really does with gusto,” the principal says.
“She wants to make change, she’s highly creative and I think that’s why this has just taken off so much.
“It’s been very exciting to watch her develop as a professional … she has always had that creative flair, she just doesn’t want to do the run-of-the-mill kind of stuff, she shines when the focus is on her and she can take learning in new directions.”
Burtenshaw’s newfound love of all things tech stems from a desire for the world to be a better place.
“I hope that technology, rather than create division, will unite people to build communities that are more simple.
“It will give all people a chance to tell their story, to share their dreams and give hope that a solution to the problems of our world is just around the corner,” she says.
“When I look at the bright young faces of the students I teach I say ‘it just might be you who solves this problem’.
“The looks of promise in their eyes makes my struggles to get the damn Sphero to connect all worthwhile.”
Part of Burtenshaw’s prize, a ticket to this year’s FutureSchools conference in Melbourne with an impressive lineup of speakers, is a special highlight for the educator.
“In entertainment terms, meeting Sir Ken Robinson and Gary Stager [is] for me, in rock star terms, like meeting David Bowie and Freddie Mercury,” she says.
It was Burtenshaw’s son Robert, who recently lost his battle with cancer, that introduced her to the work of Robinson.
“My son Robert, who I have dedicated this award to, is responsible for changing the way I teach,” she says.
“A few years ago he rang me from the Gold Coast and asked if I had heard of Sir Ken Robinson, of whom I hadn’t, he talked my ear off until it was red and burning.
“He then sent the link to Sir Ken’s TED talks and I was hooked. Changing Education Paradigms changed my life.”
“My son … opened my eyes to the joys of teaching a better way. I hope with all my heart that technology and all the talented souls who master it for the good of all, will soon find a cure for cancer and all of the world’s other great problems.”