Congratulations Jenny on being named a Companion of Royal Society Te Apārangi, that must be such an honour!

Yes, it is, I’m thrilled to bits and very humbled by it, too. When you look at the names of the other people who have been given it, it’s great.

Are you currently still teaching?

No, I’ve retired from teaching because I was at the age to retire – in fact I was two or three years over the age, so I’ve retired from going into school, but I’ve always done a lot of national work supporting teachers and that sort of thing, and I’m carrying on running that. So I’m chairperson of Earth and Space Science Educators, which is affiliated to the NZASE, which is the New Zealand Association of Science Educators, and also I run the Nelson Science Society which is a branch organisation of the Royal Society, and I still have the odd educational contract.

How long were you teaching for?

I think it was about 26 or 27 years in total. I was about 23 years at Nelson College for Girls, and the other three years were at other schools in the North Island, and a term at a school in Zimbabwe when it was still in the transition era.

Teaching in Zimbabwe must have been eye opening?

Well, it was in the middle of the civil war. I was there at the time of the transition – I mean, there was a war going on in the country ... we lived in a particularly safe area, but if for example we wanted to go to Victoria Falls … we travelled in a convoy with tanks either end of the convoy, or something equivalent and a spotter plan going backwards and forwards over the convoy. So I found out what it was like to live in a warzone. It was quite a time. And apartheid was effectively still going, and as a New Zealander I found apartheid quite difficult, actually. It was very hard for me to treat a black person differently from a white person.

How did you get into teaching science? Was there a particular teacher at school that pushed you in that direction?

No, because the school I was at at that stage, which was Palmerston North Girls’ High, wasn’t very strong in science. Girls’ science wasn’t strong at that stage. I just had an inherent love of the subject. I did microbiology and biochemistry, which I absolutely loved, [and] it just kind of opened up a whole new world that you didn’t learn about in school science.

There are so many different areas of science to cover, so much more than what we may get to in the curriculum. It must be difficult knowing what to teach?

The three main sciences, biology, physics and chemistry, have been really the senior sciences, with agriculture and horticulture in certain schools. What kind of got left out was the fourth strand of the science curriculum, the content strand which is based on planet earth and beyond, so basically based on earth sciences and astronomy – particularly astronomy as it relates to the earth sciences. A lot of the work that I was able to do was sort of revitalising that particular aspect of the curriculum. So no, that didn’t get taught much, and my opinion is that the curriculum was already full and there wasn’t much room for planetary issues that are so important these days.

Can you tell me a little bit about your work in developing the assessments and resources for NCEA and in particular earth and space science?

I was involved with NCEA pretty much right from the beginning, because I was teaching a subject that was actually called 'general science', at senior level, and that did have some astronomy and some geology in it. And so I was brought in as kind of a subject expert in that general science and did a bit of chemistry and a bit of biology and a bit of physics, and a bit of geology and a bit of astronomy. But unfortunately it wasn’t forming a coherent whole as a subject. I was involved in science, particularly with supporting general science and helping review standards, writing resources and helping student teachers with assessment and that sort of thing, whenever NCEA started. I was ... going and doing professional development around the country. And then a new curriculum came in and that was published in 2007, but the panel for that was a couple of years before that, and in that it was decided – and I was on that panel – that we needed to make sure that not only geology was in the curriculum, but also the ocean and the atmosphere. I was influenced by the fact that I’d sailed across the Pacific Ocean, so I was highly aware of this huge body of water and this huge aspect of our planet that we didn’t seem to be teaching anywhere, or students didn’t have the opportunity to learn about. And so we put earth system science into the curriculum, and I guess I was one of the people on the panel that did that. And then in 2008 ... the curriculum had been published, and the Ministry decided to do an alignment between the NCEA standards that there were and the new curriculum, to make sure that NCEA was assessing the new curriculum. So I was actually running the contract for that for science in 2008, and we looked at level 1 at that stage, and then 2009 we started looking at the senior subjects, level 2 and level 3 NCEA, and then the Ministry asked me to get a team and put together a subject based on the planet Earth and beyond content strand of the science learning area of the new curriculum. We decided to call it 'Earth and space science', and it involves teaching about the Earth system and astronomy, more in the area of planetary science rather than astronomy, in the sense that maybe physics might teach it.

Why is this work so important to you, and what keeps you working so hard at it?

Well, in some ways I was just kind of there at the time that all this happened. I have always loved the earth sciences and oceanography and atmosphere, just the sense of how our planet functions. I just discovered that I had a real passion to make sure that this subject happens. I remember talking to a group of teachers in Auckland and saying as a scientist we’re not teaching about our planet, we’re not teaching about the problems of our planet, and I think that’s what motivated me all the time. Because you don’t get good policy and government deciding to have good policy and good law, if you don’t have really rock solid science behind it. We’ve now got rock solid science, we keep on needing to have rock solid science, and that’s why it’s so important I think to have some awareness in schools of these kinds of issues.

What would you say is the biggest scientific concern facing the world?

There’s the obvious one of climate change, but I think the plastic pollution at the moment is an enormous one. I first learnt about that because in 2008 I wasn’t only doing the alignment, I also had a Royal Society teacher fellowship, and I spent a year doing oceanography in NIWA with Dr Mike Williams, and that’s when I first learnt about the huge problem of the plastics in the ocean and how it was accumulating in the middle of completely isolated parts of the ocean. What was really interesting was how was it getting off the land and into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or basically everywhere now, where you wouldn’t expect any pollution at all and yet this pollution was getting everywhere. I think that’s a really important immediate problem. And then in the slightly longer term you’ve got things like climate change, you’ve got ocean acidification ... deforestation, excessive amounts of sediment reaching coastal areas of the seas – there’s so many, where do we start!

And what can schools do about that?

Schools are there for education, so we can educate, and what you get – particularly [what] I saw at my old school – are these wonderfully enthusiastic groups of young women going out and really trying to effect change in their own communities, which is absolutely fantastic, and I think that’s probably happening all over the country. And particularly in the plastic scene because there’s something we can do that’s immediate. In Nelson we had the first supermarket to not have any plastic bags anymore. So there’s a lot of local things you can do to do with plastics, and a lot of students are getting involved in that.

You’ve achieved so much over your career. Is there a particular highlight or memory that stands out as one of your favourites?

When I had my fellowship year I had three weeks on the Tangaroa, which is the NIWA research vessel, and I just found that fascinating. We went out into the Chatham Rise and there was fisheries research and I was just hugely impressed with the way these scientists are conducting this very rigorous science. The science I observed and participated in was really, really interesting, so that was certainly a highlight. I’ve really enjoyed teaching the subject, that was always what I really loved. I even stayed on an extra year at school because I’d put so much energy into resourcing it, I wanted to have a year to just enjoy teaching the subject before I actually retired from teaching! So it’s just been an absolute pleasure to sit and teach something you’re really interested in.