Having spent more than a decade educating Aboriginal and disadvantaged children from remote communities before moving into general teaching, John Townley’s career has come full circle, combining his passion for STEM with his desire to help those with limited access to learning.
His development of the ground-breaking Robotics Club network, which encompasses 11 other schools including more than 200 students from low ICSEA and remote communities, has earnt him the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award.
For Townley, teaching is about contributing to the community, which is why he’s remained committed to positions that have allowed him to work directly with marginalised students.
“I am a very social person, I really enjoy getting to know lots of different people,” says Townley.
“Helping others learn comes naturally to me as a I enjoy learning new things myself.
“I have always worked with disadvantaged students and sought to develop the skills I need to empower them.
“My early goals were classroom oriented, behaviour management, literacy and numeracy strategies and vocational training. I have always delivered VET training in Business, IT and General Education.
“For a time, I aspired to leadership roles, but I decided quickly that I am in schools to teach and that it is best to leave organisational matters to others and stick to my passions.”
Townley’s career began by sharing his farming and practical skills with young men in an Aboriginal Community called Coonana in 1988. After spending time abroad teaching English as a second language, he returned to Australia to complete a Diploma of Education.
He then took a role as an environmental trainer, running unemployed youth Landcare Projects, as well as traineeships in land management, followed by a role as a project officer at Tjuntjuntjara Remote Aboriginal Community in the Great Victoria desert, where he was immersed in learning a new culture and sharing his skills, helping to set up infrastructure in the very new community of 150 people.
“After a short time teaching secondary English, I realised that it was not for me.
“In 1997, I was asked by the Tjuntjuntjara Community to help them start their school. My wife and I and several Aboriginal education workers set up Tjuntjuntjara RCS in a shed, with 30 children and only the resources we could bring in on the store truck, donations and essentials.
“In 1999, I oversaw the building of the school and its beginning as an education department school.”
As their children became toddlers, the couple returned to Perth where MTownley retrained in information technology for a year, working voluntarily at UNISYS West at the same time.
“I had always loved tinkering with electronics and computers as a child and really enjoyed the change.
“I first taught technologies at Armadale TAFE, delivering an Aboriginal IT course. After that I began work at Armadale SHS and quickly moved into a full-time IT teaching job where I stayed for 14 years.
“My colleagues and I setup a specialist IT program there and developed VET and senior school pathways for students. I moved to Cecil Andrews College in late 2015 after a term working in Wyndham as a maths and bush ranger program teacher.
While Townley loved his vocation, he found the restrictions on resourcing, structures, standardised testing, an ever growing curriculum and increasing accountability processes to be challenging.
“I have steadily tried more and more to find innovative ways to overcome blocks and limitations whilst exploiting opportunities.
“That has caused me and probably others grief at times and resulted in wonderful opportunities for students at other times.”
Townley arrived at Cecil Andrews the year before its $5 million architecturally designed STEM centre was built.
As a technologies teacher, his brief was to help prepare the college for a new era with STEM learning as a whole school priority.
“It took me a while to understand what the STEM phenomenon is.
“We have been underperforming in higher level STEM subjects with numbers of girls participating falling and little progress in inclusion of Indigenous students.
“In secondary education, PBL with any curriculum content offers rich opportunities to attend to the general capabilities in our curriculum which include the skills we now call 21st century skills – like critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.
“Employers need graduates with those kinds of skills.
“Our society can be better if schools work explicitly on developing them in students. STEM based PBL is easily aligned with entrepreneurship design thinking and innovation, all highly valued in Industry.
Townley says his own interest in STEM comes from both a personal joy in being able to learn about fascinating things like robotics, AI, VR and coding, as well as his clear understanding that STEM projects offer a powerful tool for engaging disadvantaged students.
“STEM Projects can be connected to students’ aspirations, interests and concerns.
“Young people care deeply about the future and know that they are more invested in it than adults.
“We use the UN Sustainable Development Goals to help link and frame those concerns to real world problems for students. The response is very positive. Making a positive difference in the world whilst learning is highly motivating.”
Townley says it’s important for students to be interested in STEM education because for them, the future is both clear and unclear.
“They should know that STEM careers are among the most likely to grow and that there are jobs they are preparing for which do not yet exist.
“Technology is transforming the world of work at such a rapid rate now that predictions are becoming difficult.
“What we do know is that students will certainly be better prepared if they develop high level STEM skills, particularly technology skills and the growth mindset of lifelong learners.
“In schools now we tend to focus a little more on developing future focused skill sets and attitudes and a little less on content knowledge.”
In his current role as STEM coordinator, Townley supports whole school STEM integration by resourcing other teachers’ projects and team teaching.
“I manage activity in our STEM Centre, deliver professional learning in our STEM and Digital Technologies Teacher Development School Programs and run my own projects including our Robotics Club, which at first was a Tech Makerspace in which students explore robotics, drones, 3D Printing and coding.
“We integrated Coder Dojo and by 2017, Robotics Club evolved into the first Robotics Competition and first Lego League Team base.
Townley says the Marine Industries School Pathways program has helped the Robotics and STEM programs with funding and networking with other practitioners since the beginning, along with Salesforce and the Schools Plus Smart Giving Program.
“Without that support we would have achieved much less.
“The City of Armadale has been very supportive of the program as well recognising and supporting the afterschool community and youth development activity through Parents and Citizens Grants to help us and by including us in community events like the Youth Festival each year.”
Townley says the Robotics Club’s mission is to inspire underrepresented students to aspire to high level STEM learning and careers.
“At CA College we bring in community and industry mentors to work with students to help them learn new skills and achieve success in competition.
“We include Tjuntjuntjara RCS and Hedland SHS in the network to support remote and regional students.
“CA College and Tjuntjuntjara RCS (TRCS) have a 3-year-old STEM partnership with students traveling 1400 kms to stay at each school each year for STEM learning and cultural exchange.
“The Two-way Science and Learning on Country programs at TRCS have inspired us to aspire to Two-way STEAM Learning at CA College bringing local Noongar Culture into STEM Learning.
“Building on our successful Six Season RC Racing car class last year we are planning a Six Seasons Forest and Racing track beginning in semester two this year for the next group of Indigenous and Non-indigenous students learning about the Noongar Six Seasons with Noongar Elders Vivienne and Moort Hansen.”
Townley says students and the wider school community have responded positively to the opportunity for learning future-focused skills whilst having fun.
“Students have taken opportunities to present their learning at community, university and industry events.
“Many students speak about their new found career ideas in coding, engineering and emerging industries like drones.
“It fills me with pride and satisfaction to hear students aspiring to further learning and careers as traditionally there are many students in disadvantaged schools who struggle to find direction and aspiration.
“The opportunity for desert kids to participate in a mainstream STEM based activity alongside kids from all over WA helps them connect to the world beyond the community and to build confidence in communicating and interacting.
“I think that the barriers to participation in things like the school robotics competition for remote schools are enormous, but they are a great opportunity for philanthropists to help, as funding travel is one of the biggest hurdles.”
Along with encouraging greater participation among Aboriginal students, Townley is passionate about fostering a greater interest in STEM among girls.
“Girls are often reluctant to start robotics as it is likely perceived as a male domain.
“Once established, the girls perform brilliantly with no difference to boys.
“There is work to be done in convincing girls that they can and should engage in STEM and research shows us that a significant number of girls choose not to study STEM subjects by early high school.
“Our Robotics Club aims to have 50 per cent girls and boys and participating.
“We need to meet female role models as early as possible.
“We have girls in STEM activities beginning now. We actively seek opportunities and female guest speakers, mentors to encourage girls to engage with STEM learning.”
Having been named an Australian Teaching Fellow and receiving the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award, Townley says he feels privileged to be able to expand his work in ways that would otherwise be challenging.
“My Principal Stella Jimman is visionary and the most supportive school leader I have met in 25 years in the job.
“She gives each of her staff opportunity to innovate and excel.
“I owe this honour in a large part to that freedom and support – it is what we will need more of to continue improving public education in Australia.”