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The science of intentional leadership

Institute Member, Chris Duggan MIML, on Intentional Leadership.

For 15 years Chris Duggan MIML taught chemistry, biology and general science to high school students in New Zealand. But over time she started to notice a pattern. Her students were starting high school without having learnt anything about science at primary school.

Chris did some digging and discovered that, at the time, 73% of primary schools across the country didn’t have an effective science program. She knew that something needed to be done. And she decided that she was the person who could do something about it. 

Chris started House of Science NZ, of which she is now the National CEO. The journey she has been on since the beginnings of House of Science in 2014 has completely blown her expectations of what she could achieve. She shares her insights on the journey and how her intentional leadership approach has been pivotal to her success.

A growing dream

When House of Science started, Chris thought it would be great if she could help half of the 50 schools in her region. She quit her job as a teacher to develop a small library of resource kits that were delivered to schools by a handful of volunteers.

Today? House of Science reaches more than 500 schools across New Zealand. Every week tens of thousands of students are accessing the resource kits and doing hands-on science activities that they wouldn’t otherwise experience.

“As we’ve grown, so has the vision of the organisation,” says Chris. “The demand is obviously there and we can see that we’ve hit the nail on the head as far as what teachers need and want.

“We get emails from teachers every day who’ve been in the profession for decades and never taught science. With our resources they can now teach science and they actually enjoy teaching it. In turn, the students are engaged and excited about science. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

The next step for Chris and House of Science is to cover all of New Zealand so every school can access the library of science resources. Chris admits that it won’t happen overnight but she’s more than confident that it will happen.

Maximising impact and reach

Chris could have chosen a number of different models to deliver the House of Science program. With her background working in education, she knew that if she could empower the teachers with resources, the program would have the greatest impact.

So that’s what she did.

“We revisit our strategy at a board and also staff level at least annually, if not more often,” she explains. “We still firmly believe that empowering teachers is the Holy Grail.

“By giving teachers the confidence and resources to deliver great science lessons, we normalise science in the classroom. Also, because most of our primary teachers are female, it provides girls with good role models.”

If the House of Science team were to deliver the program themselves, it would not only limit the reach of the program but also send the message that science is special. They have intentionally chosen the format they have because it gives the best bang for their buck with more kids developing foundational science skills.

Constant innovation

A resource library isn’t a novel concept. But what Chris and her team have done with such a simple concept is quite incredible. 

The content of the resource kits that go into schools is aligned with the curriculum. They also include cutting-edge science that’s happening in research institutes around the country. 

“As far as we can tell, no one else is doing that anywhere in the world,” says Chris. “Our model gives schools the opportunity to access really expensive resources and not have to fork out a lot of money themselves. 

“By sharing the resources with the whole community, it means every school is able to access things like a full size skeleton or virtual reality headsets. The logistics of a class trip to the moon are a bit tricky but after studying about space, the students can have that experience through virtual reality.”

For Chris and House of Science, fundraising also requires innovative thinking, particularly after the effects of the pandemic. While many of the community funds they once relied on are now not as freely available. 

“We offer our potential partners and sponsors some really unique opportunities to connect with schools, which they love,” explains Chris. “Our partners can sponsor a kit or a resource. Then they can go in and help augment the learning for the students. It’s a really nice thing that we can offer that not a lot of other charities can offer.”

Building a team

In the early days of House of Science, Chris was the team. She developed the website and was delivering kits with the help of a small team of volunteers.

Now Chris has a team of 35 people. She has also been approached by several well-respected science educators who were looking for a career change and keen to work with House of Science.

On growing her team, Chris says that it’s important to know what you don’t know and accept that it’s ok not to know. That’s where your team comes in to support you.

“My role has changed hugely over the last eight years,” she recalls. “In hindsight, I probably didn’t let go of some tasks quickly enough. Partly because the funding wasn’t there to pay them and partly because I find it difficult to let go.

“I have a mentor through IML and she’s really helped me appreciate what it means to be a CEO of what’s now quite a large organisation. It’s been quite the learning curve for me as I’ve adapted to being more strategic and delegating more of my tasks.”

As Chris has built the team, she has focused on ensuring each new hire really believes in the vision and purpose of the organisation. From there, she focuses on investing in them to make sure they can grow as the organisation grows.

“It’s not just my role that has changed over the last eight years,” she says. “Every role in the organisation has changed. Our staff development program is very much goal focused to build the skills, capacity and capability of the team.

“The professional development side isn’t always easy. Some roles in our organisation are completely unique and you won’t find the same role anywhere else in the world. But it’s really important that we give our people the support and opportunities they need to achieve their goals.”

The tipping point

For other leaders, Chris suggests building a strong network of peers at the same stage of the journey and those leaders who have gone before.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be people in the same industry,” she says. “There’s a lot of really important skills that are very transferable. It’s an ongoing journey.”

Rather than a single moment where Chris noticed a large shift, she says that she experiences regular tipping points.

“Intentional leadership is a continual process,” she explains. “There hasn’t been a big lightbulb moment. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got this incredible beast. My challenge is to lead that beast rather than hanging on to the end of the tail and being taken along for the ride.”


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