How can we do better in maths and sciences?

photo: The Gene Tree Project public workshop #2 in Carlton Connect Lab14 artistic research residency (September 2016), image – Tess Hutson

The latest international test results for maths and science in schools have been released and Australia isn’t doing so well.

The Study observes the maths and science results from years four and eight provided by more than 60 countries. In Australia, more than 570 schools and more than 16 000 students at Year 4 and Year 8 were involved. (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS):

The results show that, since 2011 in Australia, year four maths results have fallen 10 places from 18th to 28th. At a year eight level Australia has fallen five places in both maths and science to sit at 17th. Year four science has seen no change and we sit in 25th place (source: The Guardian).

Before we go further, we need to address the limitations of ranking.

As Julie Sonnemann, School Education Fellow at the Grattan Institute, and Dr. Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute say, “These results only show student achievement, not student progress (growth over time), which is a far more important measure of the value-add of an education system, as well as student resilience for later life.” (‘International maths and science rankings: keep calm but change direction’, The Guardian, 30/11/16).

However, the study of trends is useful if we want to address and ultimately change our maths and science education.

Sonnemann and Goss say that ‘These test scores are not everything: we want our children to develop broader skills and resilience for success in both work and life. But they do tell us something about the practical knowledge and skills our kids have in maths and science. And these core skills matter too.’ (‘International maths and science rankings: keep calm but change direction’, The Guardian, 30/11/16).

So, let us continue.

Maths and science are important for our future. If we want to expand our understanding of how our world works and how we fit into it, we are going to need our students’ curious minds to continue to explore the rich skills of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These kinds of subjects and careers are often referred to as STEM.

Education experts are offering their educated solutions, which include:

  • Provide appropriate funding in the right areas (source: The Guardian)
  • Improve training for teachers (source: The Conversation)
  • Train specialist teachers (source: The Guardian)
  • Make the science curriculum engaging, current and relevant to the students by discussing the personal or societal implications of science. (Source: The Conversation)
  • Get scientists in the classroom to give students the experience of science practice. (Source: The Conversation)
  • Use different ways to explore knowledge that will engage critical thinking, including the arts. (Source: The Conversation)

It is the final strategy in particular that catches our eye.

The Gene Tree Project would like to add an ‘A’ for the arts to the teaching of STEM. We would like to turn STEM into STEAM, something that is happening more and more in our schools. Because teaching is not just about information, it’s about inspiration, it’s about creating curious minds.

At The Gene Tree Project we believe that the arts offer another way for students’ curiosity to be stimulated, for students to find, understand, connect with, and express knowledge.

We believe that the Arts provide students with the opportunity to re-interpret their understanding and refine their critical thinking. The arts allow students to experience and understand processes, facts and outcomes at an intellectual as well as physical and emotional level. The Arts enable students to explore how knowledge relates to them in their world. And the Arts engages all of the senses to create unexpected experiences and new pathways to memory.

The relationship of the arts and sciences to education is a complex and important conversation that we at The Gene Tree Project are manoeuvering with delicacy and curiosity.

And we are always interested in hearing about your interesting and positive experiences of learning and educating across the sciences, technologies, engineering, maths and the arts. What inspires you to learn?

Written by Cressida Bradley and Elissa Goodrich, inspired by the Gene Tree Project team.


Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by ACER

‘Three ways to boost science performance in Australian schools’, in The Conversation, by Russell Tytler, Professor of science education, Deakin University, 2/12/16.

‘International maths and science rankings: keep calm but change direction’, in The Guardian, by Julie Sonnemann, School Education Fellow at the Grattan Institute, and Dr. Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute, 30/11/16.

‘Teaching — It’s about Inspiration, Not Information’ in Medium, by Tina Seelig, Creativity, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship teacher at Stanford, 12/12/16.

Secrets for Frankie

We thought you should know that we’ve been telling a few of our secrets to Frankie.

In the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Frankie magazine out now, there’s an interview with the core team from The Gene Tree Project: composer Elissa Goodrich; evolutionary biologist Dr. Anna Syme; and dramaturg Nadja Kostich.

So pop the kettle on, get out the biscuits, and settle down for a good read.

In the article, you’ll find out how the evolution of the peppery moth during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century influenced our creative process and inspired thoughtful, complex and beautiful music.

The tale of the peppery moth is a poetic and disturbing story that came out of a world going through massive technological, social and ecological changes. Nearly three hundred years later and we’re in the midst of our own significant cultural, economic and environmental shifts due to climate change.

Let us just look at the biological impacts of climate change. Most ecological processes, including seasonal flowering, the diversity of crops, and animal evolution, are showing responses to the human made climate change.

How are the plants and animals around us adapting to the changes that we are imposing on the world?

Temperate plants are flowering earlier in spring and later in autumn. Similar timing changes have been seen in marine and freshwater fish spawning events and in the seasonal migrations of animals worldwide. (Source: Science Mag)

Some species are becoming smaller to favour a greater surface to volume ratio in the warm conditions. For example, the long-distance migrant bird the red knot (Calidris canutus), which breeds in the far north of Canada, Europe and Russia and winter holidays in Australia, is producing smaller offspring with smaller bills. In South Australia, the leaf width in soapberry (Dodonaea viscosa) has decreased. And again, scientists are observing colour changes in butterflies, dragonflies and birds. (Source: Science Mag)

When we hear these stories, our artistic and scientific impulses are sparked by the catalyst of change. The pursuit of knowledge challenges us to think about the world and how we fit in. And artists create new work by first observing, listening carefully, and then asking questions.

At The Gene Tree Project, we hope to bring our audiences to a greater awareness through our work. Through our music and our approach we want to expand your opportunity to make observations, ask questions and form decisions about how you can make a difference in this world.

What stories, images or sounds come to your mind of our world adapting to climate change?

written by Cressida Bradley with Elissa Goodrich, inspired by The Gene Tree Project team.

The two lovers

*Photo by Lisa Mansfield from Melbourne Music Week gig – Wednesday 16th November 2016 at Carlton Connect Initiative Lab14 Gallery …

Here is a photo from The Gene Tree Project’s recent premier performance. We had such a wonderful evening playing to a full house. If you didn’t get to see us, don’t worry we have more gigs in the pipeline. We’ll let you know as soon as details are confirmed.

In the meantime, join our mailing list by filling in your details at the Contact Us page and you’ll be the first to know.

And now on with the show…

The two lovers.

In our last article we quoted the actor/writer/living legend Alan Alda, who likened the sciences and the arts as long lost lovers. You can see his full address to the National Press Club here.

When we heard this speech we realised here at The Gene Tree Project that what we’ve been doing is reuniting these two distinct, beautiful and compatible souls.

As we said in our first article, the arts and the sciences have more in common that you might initially think. Both artists and scientists look at our world and ask, ‘How does this world work?’, ‘How do we fit into this world?’ and then quite often, ‘How can we make this world better?’.

These lovers weren’t always so estranged. Once there was a time when learned men and women were expert polymaths – equally schooled in the sciences and the arts/philosophy. There have been many famous examples throughout our history.

Here are just some of our favourites.

The Greek Hypatia lived in Egypt at the turn of the fifth century. She was a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who taught her students to observe and question the world and its heavens.

Galileo lived in the seventeenth century; a famous physicist, astronomer, engineer, philosopher, mathematician and musician. His theories provide the cornerstone for so much of our understanding of the universe today.

And finally, the perfect personification of the Renaissance passion for the well-rounded individual – the genius da Vinci, who evolved our understanding of engineering, paleontology and anatomy with an artist’s eye.

So when did these two lovers lose touch?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the term ‘scientist’ was coined. Until that time this group of individuals were called ‘Natural Philosophers’. While the individual sciences like Biology, Physics and Chemistry etc. were easily identifiable, and artists were obviously an established community, perhaps it is in the creation of this title ‘scientist’ that contributed to the two lovers drifting apart?

Each one found their passion and reward in their specialisation. Each one developed their own particular language that set it apart. And perhaps this encouraged the general public to choose sides and for schools to separate students according to their different talents?

However the separation and specialisation occurred, both the sciences and the arts have since suffered from the same misconceptions. For many in society, the arts and sciences are perceived as elite, intellectual and inaccessible. But in reality both the arts and the sciences help tell the story of who we are and where we come from. They also ask where are we now, and where are we heading?

The obvious distinction is in the language or the vocabulary that the two disciplines use. It is this sharing of language that has been so rewarding and inspiring for us within The Gene tree Project.

To explain the purpose of her craft, Elissa loves to paraphrase one of her favourite theorists Arnold van Gennep. She says, “we tell stories about ourselves, to ourselves, in order to understand ourselves.”

In this evolving world with its changing climate, and an irrational fear of the unknown and the other, we threaten to limit our learning if we don’t embrace all that the sciences and the arts can tell us.

At The Gene Tree Project we are speaking up for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. We are embodying the beautiful reconciliation of the sciences and the arts and we would like to share that passion and its stories with you.

But what do you think?

We invite you to tell us below how you understand the relationship of the sciences and the arts…

Written by Cressida Bradley and Elissa Goodrich, inspired by The Gene Tree Project team.

Why do things break?

Photo: Gabby O’Connor

This is an edited excerpt from a paper originally presented at Double Dialogues Creative Symposium  called “Why do things break?” at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide, October 13th-15th, 2016.

Why do Things Break? – a composer’s approach to genetic breakage – mutation and bottlenecks

By Elissa Goodrich

Why do things break, fall apart, fall down, disintegrate, splinter, corrode, degenerate and devolve?

In my artistic residency for “The Gene Tree Project” at Carlton Connect Initiative Lab 14 in Melbourne with Dr Anna Syme and Nadja Kostich we have been delving into these processes, breaking into the scientific approach and asking from an artistic viewpoint how evolutionary science traces, restores and confounds patterns.

We’ve been asking, do living creatures, organisms actually break or do they expire or adapt?

And I’ve been asking myself, what are my musical, compositional responses and creative impulses when confronted by a primary scientific approach to evolutionary science – that of breaking down patterns of evidence and information to then restore or indeed create patterns anew?

Indeed, the artistic process itself in this project is one of constantly breaking down existing patterns and knowledge, of both evolutionary science and the compositional process, in order to remake, create, adapt.

When species fall out of symbiosis with their habitat, or when their habitat greatly changes, species enter a bottleneck. In this bottleneck, many, many individual living species die off, they just don’t make it through. However, for those few that do make it through, most often there is a proliferation of genetic mutations.

Modern humans went through a genetic bottleneck 60,000 years ago. We nearly didn’t make it.” (to quote from the lecture “Human Evolutionary History in a Global Context: Progress & Challenges”, by paleoanthropologist Professor Bernard Wood, in July 2016).

Mutations are an evolutionary attempt at adaption, but mutations can also be viewed as a genetic mistake, a misfiring! Mutations can provide the keys to life, or they can kill a life. Whilst mutations are in effect a form of damage, it is the damaged (the lucky damaged few) that survive.

So, damage, or breakage, is a vital, necessary part of survival, not merely at a human, emotional, or, dare I say it, a creative level, but it is also vital from the point-of-view of evolutionary science.

Now, how on earth do I express that, and respond to it musically?

The answer lies partly in returning to what I feel converges in the practices of science and arts-making (or at least what constantly converged for Anna, Nadja and me in our residency). To Look, to Listen (or observe) and to Question, over and over and over again, Look, Listen, Question, and to Make, to Look, Listen and Ask again. To Experience…

Alan Alda (a science advocate as well as an actor and playwright) in his lecture “Science belongs to all of us” for the National Press Club Address, ABC, March 2016, asserted that the arts and the sciences are like two long lost lovers wishing to reunite.

At The Gene Tree Project we are creating the space for these two lovers to talk and, together, discover the world anew.

(Written by E.Goodrich, edited by C. Bradley– 2016)

We invite you to experience a live performance at Melbourne Music Week of our musical response to a genetic bottleneck!, “Passing through – Dance in the Bottleneck” by Elissa Goodrich (2016) for soprano sax (Adam Simmons), tenor sax and flute (Gideon Brazil) and vibraphone (Elissa Goodrich).

You will get to experience this live piece as well as many others that are a growing part of The Gene Tree Project.

Book now, spaces are limited

The Gene Tree Project: The art of science and music
As part of Melbourne Music Week

When: Wednesday November 16th, 6.30pm
Where: Carlton Connect Initiative Lab14 Gallery, 700 Swanston St, Carlton
Tickets: $15 / $20

Book now, spaces are limited

Performance at Melbourne Music Week

Come to our performance of the Gene Tree Project: The Sound of Art and Science
Wednesday November 16th, Melbourne Music Week 2016

Elissa Goodrich – compositions / vibraphone
Gideon Brazil – saxophones / flute
Adam Simmons – saxophones / shakuhachi

in collaboration with

Anna Syme – evolutionary scientist consultant
Nadja Kostich – dramaturg

When: Wednesday November 16th 6.30pm.
Where: Carlton Connect Initiative Lab14 Gallery, 700 Swanston St, Carlton.
Tickets: $15 / $20

Book here!

Co-presented with Creative Spaces Arts Residency Program, City of Melbourne, and Carlton Connect. And Melbourne Music Week.

This project is supported by:
Creative Victoria, Australia Council for the Arts


Inspired by the Gene Tree Project team, written by Cressida Bradley.

What happens when you put a Composer, a Scientist and a Dramaturg in the same room?

No this isn’t the start of a joke, it’s our welcome to the Gene Tree Project blog, where you get to hear the questions, thoughts and conversations that have been inspiring us and contributing to our work.

It is also where you’ll hear about our talking events and music performances.

We want you to join the conversation so come and see us talk and play, read our articles, ask us questions, and tell us what our work inspires in you.

listen. observe. question.

Three simple actions that change the way that we work, learn and evolve.

As a society we take great comfort in titles, classifications and finite definitions. It helps us anchor to a shared idea; a common understanding that assures meaning and surety.

We want to know the facts and we find confidence in the truth. We prefer things to be clear, decided and fixed. We are compelled to make up our minds. We insist on knowing the end of the story.

But if that were so, then we would never explore, change and improve.

And that’s impossible, indeed it’s foolhardy, in our world that’s always changing.

So what does happen when you put a Composer, a Scientist and a Dramaturg in the room? Each has their own specialist knowledge built from years of training and practice. Each has their own view of life seen through different eyes and experiences. What could these three from separate vocational worlds possibly share?

What they did share was a curious mind, a deep respect for knowledge, and a creative spirit.

So they quickly found a shared approach and a common language.

Listen. Observe. Question.

Listen to each other, to the music, to the data, to ideas, to experience, to possibilities, to fears, and to stories.

Observe the experiment, the failures, the impacts, the successes, and the learning.

Question the truth, the assumptions, yourself, each other, and the parameters. Draw out the inspirations and the knowledge to evolve our understanding of the world, science, art and ourselves.

And then listen once more…

And again, and again, and again…

Listen. Now. Again.

Coming events…

Join us at our upcoming events and gigs:

Double Dialogues Creative Symposium
Elissa is having a paper presented at Double Dialogues Creative Symposium which is called Why Do Things Break? The paper, called Why do Things Break? – a composer’s approach to genetic breakage – mutation and bottlenecks, is based on her experience of the Gene Tree Project residency at Carlton Connect’s Lab 14 in Melbourne.

It will be presented at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide, October 13th-15th.

Lunchtime concert St Paul’s Cathedral
Come to a lunchtime performance by Elissa Goodrich & Adam Simmons at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

Where: St Paul’s Cathedral, corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street, Melbourne
When: Wednesday 9th November, 1pm
Tickets: Entry by donation