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Kalie Brackenhofer


Cairns students are growing vegan leather, creating bionic arms, and planning the colonisation of Mars thanks to a former marine biologist and finalist in state teaching awards.

Tropical North Learning Academy – Smithfield State High School teacher Kalie Brackenhofer’s ability to engage students through exciting lessons is just one of the reasons she is a finalist for the Queensland College of Teachers TEACHX Innovation in Teaching Award.

The number of students wanting to participate in Mrs Brackenhofer’s STEMXtend program has skyrocketed from 37 in 2019 to 156 in 2020, with 46 per cent of Year 7 students choosing the subject as an elective.

The subject challenges students to solve contemporary issues using STEM knowledge, design thinking and creativity. Mrs Brackenhofer said it was also designed to have “a community spin”.

STEMXtend students grow kombucha bacteria into a vegan leather, which they then use as purses, bags and phone cases as a potential response to fast fashion.

Year 9 STEMXtend students are challenged to design and produce a working prosthetic limb, starting with ‘bionic’ hands made from cardboard and straws, before moving on to incorporating 3D printing and Micro Bit computers.

Not content with facing challenges on Earth, Mrs Brackenhofer takes her students to ‘Mars’ to engage with issues of potential settlement. They use Lego Mindstorm technology to emulate Mars Rovers, coding them to move around maps of Mars.

“I love this type of pedagogy (teaching),” Mrs Brackenhofer said.

“My students are more engaged – they are the ones doing the thinking. I also love how it nurtures and encourages students to develop those 21st century skills,” she said.

Mrs Brackenhofer also steeps her students in real-time, real-world applications of design thinking, by taking them to visit the James Cook University (JCU) Ideas Lab, in which university students and staff work alongside local innovators and entrepreneurs.

“I wanted to make JCU seem a bit more accessible to everybody, and not just the higher-level students or the Academy classes,” Mrs Brackenhofer said.

“They get to see how innovation works in the real world.”

She said the best part about teaching was seeing her students engage with their learning.

“I love being able to have and see when I've had an impact on students – seeing them change and becoming really engaged; knowing that the passion that I have, they're starting to be able to pass that on,” Mrs Brackenhofer said.

Winners of the TEACHX Awards will be announced on October 28, on the eve of World Teachers’ Day celebrations in Queensland. Finalists win $500 and winners $5000 for professional development.

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