Luminescence and igniting a spark with Kira Westaway

When you are seated waiting for a  seminar to begin, and the presenter arrives bearing a large blown-up beachball of planet Earth, you know that this presentation may be a bit different to the last few you have attended. When the presenter is Associate Professor Kira Westaway discussing how to engage students in science, the beachball is just the start. In addition to being a respected researcher, Professor Westaway has been awarded for her innovative teaching techniques. The awards are well earned.

kira glob                     Kira with her famous Globe (Macquarie University Facebook page)


Kira Westaway, was one of the scientists involved in the discovery and subsequent dating of Homo Floresiensis, the fossilised human remains of a female, also known as the “Hobbit” on account of her diminutive size1. Her subsequent work on the dating of teeth found in a cave in Sumatra, was published in Nature and pushed human expansion out of Africa into Asia back 20ka from previous estimates2.

Coincidentally, this paper was published a month after another work in Nature that indicates aboriginal arrival in Australia was 20ka earlier than previously reported3. To say the impact of these papers across the fields of palaeobiology and archaeology was significant would be an understatement.

Professor Westaway’s speciality is luminescence dating.  She runs the luminescence dating facility at MQU, and as she says “Timing is everything.”  Professor Westaway has recently conducted luminescence dating of sediment at caves in Vietnam and is researching the giant extinct ape, Gigantopithecus blacki4. As part of her ongoing commitment to science outreach, anyone can follow the progress of this work at

me_in_lab          Kira Westaway in the luminescence lab (from

Reigniting student curiosity

The focus of this blog and her seminar is, “Reigniting student curiosity – the art of dynamic engagement, intrinsic motivation, visual stimulation and the hard sell”. Professor Westaway is as well known among Earth Science students for her interesting, and at times, adventurous lectures as she is for her impressive research.  Chocolate, lollies, balls, piles of leaves and hairdryers have all been used in her lectures to help demonstrate and communicate scientific concepts to students.

From the moment she starts her seminar she has that important element, audience engagement. Initially, she achieves this engagement through her personality, she is passionate about her work and her teaching and that comes across clearly as she speaks. She maintains this engagement however, by trying new teaching techniques and taking risks, such as the large beach ball.

Cadbury-Picnic-SplitChocolate is a great way to demonstrate plate tectonics (wikimedia commons)

The importance of reigniting student curiosity

Australia’s school student participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects is at a 20 year low and our performance in these subjects is declining relative to other nations5.

What lies at the core of decline?

There are people who believe that part of the problem lies with the way that science is taught. Kira Westaway is one of these people.  As children we are curious, science is a natural extension of that curiosity. As we further our science education we lose that engagement and traditional education stymies natural inquisitiveness.

The way to reignite student curiosity

Professor Westaway advocates for teachers to use intrinsic motivation, a principle commonly associated with marketing and psychology. By using intrinsic motivation teachers can sell science more effectively by appealing to students desires and belief systems. If you combine this approach with concepts like gamification you can reinforce learning and improve student performance.

Students may not even register that they are learning, they will be too busy having fun.

Like we did in our faculty seminar!

For further interest

Some links to seminars/talks with Professor Westaway.

Pioneering Minds 

Womens Day 

And – for those interested in the Hobbit a free online course  on her discovery and the science behind it.

Professor Kira Westaway  – Professional Biography

Kira Westaway completed a Bachelor of Science, Geography at Liverpool University (1994) and a Master degree in Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway University, London UK (1995). She undertook a second Master degree at The University of Hong Kong (1997) “Investigations into the problems associated with the optical dating of quartz”, which led her into her current field of luminescence dating.

On completion, she moved to Australia and completed a PhD at Wollongong University, “Reconstructing the Quaternary landscape evolution, and climate history of Western Flores, Indonesia: an environmental and chronological context for the archaeological site of Liang Bua’ which led her to the dating and discovery of Homo Floresiensis. Kira Westaway moved to Macquarie University in 2010 as a Fellow and then progressed from Lecturer to Associate Professor. She heads up the Luminescence Dating Facility at the University and is currently working on research into Gigantopithecus blacki. She received the AAUT National Teaching Award Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning in 2017This link contains a list of her current research projects and published papers.


  1. Sutikna, T., Tocheri, M.W., Morwood, M.J., Saptomo, E.W., Awe, R.D., Wasisto, S., Westaway, K.E., Aubert, M., Li, B., Zhao, J.X. and Storey, M., 2016. Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia.Nature532(7599), p.366.
  2. Westaway, K.E., Louys, J., Awe, R.D., Morwood, M.J., Price, G.J., Zhao, J.X., Aubert, M., Joannes-Boyau, R., Smith, T.M., Skinner, M.M. and Compton, T., 2017. An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago.Nature548(7667), p.322.
  3. Clarkson, C., Jacobs, Z., Marwick, B., Fullagar, R., Wallis, L., Smith, M., Roberts, R.G., Hayes, E., Lowe, K., Carah, X. and Florin, S.A., 2017. Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago.Nature547(7663), p.306.
  4. Bacon, A.M., Antoine, P.O., Huong, N.T.M., Westaway, K., Tuan, N.A., Duringer, P., Zhao, J.X., Ponche, J.L., Dung, S.C., Nghia, T.H. and Minh, T.T., 2018. A rhinocerotid-dominated megafauna at the MIS6-5 transition: The late Middle Pleistocene Coc Muoi assemblage, Lang Son province, Vietnam.Quaternary Science Reviews186, pp.123-141.
  5. Commonwealth of Australia, 2017, Australia’s National Science Statement (accessed 18th April 2018).



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