“Anything that burns or explodes is a definite winner,” he laughs. 

Over the last 11 years working as head of science at the Wellington boys’ school, Walker’s become well-known among students for his flashy experiments, with the bed of nails, loud and colourful chemistry explosions, hovercrafts and flaming methane bubbles being some firm favourites.

But among staff, he’s perhaps even better known for lifting the aspirations of a decade’s worth of students who were beginning to switch off from science.

The number of students studying NCEA Level 2 or 3 science at St Pat’s has increased by more than 60 per cent since 2012.

This is largely thanks to Walker leading the development of a new general science course as an option for students in Year 12, targeting those who might have seen the highly academic subjects of physics, chemistry and biology as out-of-reach.

“We were trying to figure out what's relevant to these students if they don't go on to pursue a science future,” Walker recalls.

“What's the useful learning that might inform their lives? What's going to be interesting to them?

“So we experimented with a whole load of standards over the years and found the ones that really gelled with the students.”

With the success of the Level 2 general science program came the development of a Level 3 qualification, which opened up the option of university entrance.

And while Walker admits in the beginning general science was viewed by some students as a timetable-filler rather than a passion area, this is certainly not the case today.

“I think as students started to experience success, the perception shifted into science being something that was achievable, that they could do, that they could succeed in,” Walker explains.

“And last year, every student at the beginning of the course said, ‘I want university entrance from science’, and that was quite a ground-breaking moment.”

Adding to his moments to celebrate this year, Walker was awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize in May.

“[I‘m] really stoked. It was a lovely recognition of a lot of work,” he says of the accolade. 

The prize comes with a cash purse of $150,000, which Walker is hoping to use to help St Patrick’s teachers travel to learn from other kura, and to support students that might be lacking financial means to get involved in science trips or competitions.  

Walker is a big believer in getting students outside of the classroom and tapping into science resources in the community.

“It's great being able to play videos for them, have posters up on the walls or to do experiments, but often there's so much unexpected learning that comes out of field trips,” he says.

Within his own community Walker has established valuable connections with Wellington Zoo, The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), Zealandia and Museum Of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Back inside the classroom, Walker says capturing students’ curiosity for science is really quite simple.

“I find the things that excite me about science often excite the students,” he says.

“I think almost anything, even the simplest things can capture that sort of awe and wonder, if you just tweak it so that you ask them a question that they've maybe never thought of before, or show them something they've just never experienced.”

Walker says he likes to pose questions, have students form an opinion or hypothesis and often opens this up to a vote, making sure that every student has a say.

It’s important, he says, that they are not just observers.

“It doesn't matter whether they're right or wrong, and I try to instil that in them.

“What really matters is that they're actually just trying, because often if I can get them to try, then that's half the battle.”

“Once they've got that confidence, it's often just a little step to then give them a feeling of success,” Walker explains.

“…that's often the biggest battle you're having with these students that maybe have disengaged previously from science or don't see it as something they can do.

“If it's one of these voting things, it doesn't take much for them to be right, or to explain something once their opinion has changed.

“And then I think the research backs up that if a student can experience success, that opens up the next steps for them.”