MCAST lecturer Richard Zahra, who was nominated by the Institute of Applied Sciences to contest the first edition of the Malta STEM Education Awards (2021), has won the Distinguished STEM Educator Award in the Post-secondary category. This event was organised by the Science Centre (Pembroke) within the Directorate for Learning and Assessment Programmes (DLAP), under the auspices of the President of Malta. The Malta Stem Education Awards were set up to celebrate practitioners and organisations that excel in high quality STEM educational practices which inspire young people to take up STEM careers. The winners of each category were awarded a trophy and a certificate of recognition by His Excellency the President of Malta in a ceremony held on June 28th at San Anton Palace.
Mr. Zahra has been teaching science subjects for over 25 years. Over the years, he developed a deep interest in Inquiry-Based Science Education and assimilated this approach into his own practice. He also ran various science popularisation activities at school-level including a Science Club, yearly Science Open Day and a number of science hands-on activities during which students had the opportunity to work under the guidance of real scientists. In 2011, a team of students under his tutorship won the NSTF Young Scientist Contest and were subsequently awarded a trip to the Brussels Science Expo to present their project on an international platform.
Mr. Zahra was appointed Head of Department for Chemistry in 2010 and became involved in national and SEC exam paper setting as well as teacher training and mentoring. He promoted the use of inquiry-based pedagogy in the teaching of science subjects and attended an Inquiry Science Education training course at Dublin City University. For two years, he also took the role of Professional Development Facilitator as part of the EU’s PRIMAS project (Promoting Inquiry in Maths and Science), wherein he set up a science teacher professional learning community at St Ignatius GSS, Blata l-Bajda.
In 2012, Mr. Zahra was appointed Education Officer for Chemistry. Together with his team of Heads of Department, he continued to promote the use of inquiry pedagogy amongst chemistry teachers nationally through the running of continuous professional development programmes, and also set up a training programme for school laboratory technicians so that they could better support educators in the use of inquiry-based methods. He also served as a teaching practice tutor for university students reading for science education degrees. Richard Zahra later served as a Deputy Headteacher in charge of Curriculum in a Church school before moving to the MCAST Institute of Applied Sciences (IAS) as a lecturer in 2015.
At the Institute of Applied Science, Mr Zahra strove to apply an inquiry-based pedagogy within the post-secondary vocational context, together with a complementary Assessment for Learning approach. He has been driven in his approach to teaching by a Constructivist philosophy, which sees students as actively constructing their own conceptual frameworks and scientific skills rather than being passive recipients of knowledge. His ‘lectures’ are more focused on ensuring that students’ thinking is evident and that students think critically, rather than simply on ‘transmitting’ subject content. He uses a collaborative approach amongst students, and where possible, this approach is embedded in scientific investigations that are carried out by his students. During the pandemic, Mr. Zahra transferred the tenets of Inquiry Based Learning and Assessment for Learning to online learning platforms. Thus, a collaborative work approach, which was not possible in class due to anti-Covid restrictions, could still be carried out by means of Microsoft Teams, and each team of students could be monitored and assessed in real time.
Mr Zahra has recently read for a Master’s in Research Methods at MCAST. His dissertation entitled “Conceptual Assessment Roadmapping: An Explanatory Model of the Assessment Design Process” reflects his interest in science pedagogy and was written from the point of view of a practitioner-researcher. In his study, Mr Zahra explored the cognitive aspects of the assessment design process amongst a sample of MCAST science-subject lecturers.