ELTHAM Science Teacher Dave Tonkin receives RACI award

Late last year, ELTHAM College’s Dave Tonkin received an award from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) – the Highly Commended: Proxime Accessit for his work as a chemistry teacher throughout 2020.

As well as teaching at ELTHAM, Dave is currently completing a Masters of Teaching by Internship at Melbourne University. He completed his PhD in nanotechnology, as well as undergraduate and Honours degrees in nanotechnology, majoring in chemistry, at RMIT University.

Since joining ELTHAM’s Science Department in 2017, Dave has been a leading force behind our acquisition of the Analytical Chemistry Hub. Together with Laboratory Manager, Berny Wood, he put together a proposal and organised the purchase of this suite of analytical instruments – a HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography), FTIR (Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy) and benchtop NMR (Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy) system. The Analytical Chemistry Hub is accessible not just to our VCE students, but from Year 5 upwards.

Winning this award has opened doors for Dave, and therefore ELTHAM students, with a new connection to Victorian laboratory Sharp & Howells.

Located nearby in Bulleen, Sharp & Howells is the oldest chemistry lab in Australia at almost 100 years old.

“After I put my RACI application in, I got an email from John Franceschini [Director of Sharp & Howells] saying ‘it sounds like there’s some interesting things going on at ELTHAM’,” says Dave. “John was impressed by the instruments we have and said that even they don’t have some of them – he was really blown away to find out we have the benchtop NMR system.”

While COVID restrictions halted John’s visits to the College, he has since been able to come to campus to run samples (which relate to active forensic cases) through our Analytical Chemistry Hub.

Being on the Chemistry Education Board of RACI, Dave has also partnered up with John and a postdoc researcher at Monash University to develop a forensics package for schools. “I’m currently working on making some materials for other chemistry teachers that they can have a look at in case they’re stuck for ideas,” says Dave.

His lessons are inspired by real-world issues and focus on piquing students’ curiosity through hands-on learning and critical questioning. “One of our points of difference at ELTHAM is that we’re trying to do things, instead of just talking about them,” says Dave.

“In the Science Department, we have been focusing on things like microplastics which get into the waterways and damage lots of marine life, as students have shown interest in this,” he says. “We got our hands on a bunch of academic papers which were recently written so our students are able to continue work on this research.”

There are also potential opportunities in the future for students to contribute to peer-reviewed journals, something that usually doesn’t happen until further scientific study. With resources such as the Analytical Chemistry Hub and passionate teachers such as Dave, our students can further develop their curiosity and appreciation for science.