An important education program aims to increase Indigenous Australian participation and diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies and professions. LOUIS WHITE reports

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Knowledge of the elders

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been using science for thousands of years – from looking to the stars to navigate and using native plants for medicine to drawing on physics to make effective weapons and tools.

Despite a deep connection between culture and science, there are few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Set up to address this gap, is the $28 million Indigenous STEM Education Project funded by BHP Billiton Foundation and designed and delivered by CSIRO.

The project combines indigenous cultural practices with the lens of scientific enquiry to increase participation in STEM studies and professions.

Combining indigenous culture and scientific enquiry

The project works with teachers to increase their competencies and confidence in teaching Indigenous content inquiry (the combination of indigenous cultural practises using the lens of scientific enquiry) in schools. The project also works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to both inspire and support them in their STEM studies. It is comprised of six program elements that cater to the diversity of students across remote, regional and metropolitan schools as they progress through primary, secondary and tertiary education and on into employment.

“Since October 2015, we have had 13,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and up to 700 teachers across more than 155 schools engage with the program,” CSIRO project director, Therese Postma, says.

“We are measuring students’ participation and achievement in STEM subjects as well as their attitudes and aspirations towards science and science-related careers.

“We are also measuring and evaluating improvements in teacher capacity to teach science and mathematics to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. This will be the major indicator of the project’s success.”

Science stars from remote communities

The six program elements together target primary and middle school students in remote Aboriginal communities; mainstream students in upper primary and junior secondary schools across Australia; a select cohort of Year 10, 11 and 12 students from across Australia who have demonstrated aptitude in science and mathematics; and tertiary students who otherwise might not have access to a university STEM education.

“The project and the Foundation are helping to address sustainability challenges confronting our current and future generations,” BHP Billiton Foundation’s Rebecca Samulski, says.

“We need critical thinkers who have an innovative approach to solving ongoing problems facing the world right now.

“We will evaluate the program this year to see what is working and what is not and hopefully we will see positive results in the not-too-distant future.”

Responsible for the project’s delivery, CSIRO has established relationships with schools in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia.

CSIRO has also developed new Indigenous context inquiry resources that will help teachers engage students more effectively in STEM studies. These are hands-on activities that demonstrate the links between science and different aspects of traditional knowledge, such as making fires, use of resins and more.

“We deliver three summer schools every year that aim to support and inspire 105 talented Year 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to study STEM related subjects in Years 11 and 12,” Ms Postma says.

“We also provide teacher professional development and coaching in the classrooms so that teachers are confident using the resources and can support other teachers in the school to use them. It helps to deliver outcomes that are sustainable when the project ends.”

CSIRO can work with organisations to design and deliver tailored R&D or social programs across stem education, the environment and community.

Supporting pathways in STEM

The six elements of the project include: Science Pathways for Indigenous Communities, PRIME futures, Inquiry for Indigenous Science Students, Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS), Bachelor of Science (Extended) and the Indigenous STEM awards.

“The Science Pathways for Indigenous Communities targets primary and middle school students in remote Indigenous communities and uses on-country projects as the context for learning science linked to Indigenous ecological knowledge,” Ms Postma says.

“The program engages western desert community schools, in consultation with traditional owners and other elders, to develop integrated two-way science teaching and learning programs.”

The Inquiry for Indigenous Science Students program helps develop lesson plans linked to the Australian Curriculum involving science investigations with an Indigenous context and focuses heavily on professional development of teachers. The PRIME Futures program, delivered by the YuMi Deadly Centre at the Queensland University of Technology, offers professional development to teachers so they can better engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and teach mathematics in an Indigenous context.

“We are currently more than half-way through the original project. One of the major components is developing a sustainability plan as CSIRO and BHP Billiton Foundation are committed to increased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation and representation across STEM fields,” Ms Postma says.

“Several of our programs have already established a peer-to-peer training model where teachers can pass knowledge, resources and skills onto their colleagues. We are also developing an online learning management system for teachers and other educators to be able to access the project resources beyond the life of the project.”

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and identity is fundamentally important in student achievement. A strong cultural and academic focus is guiding the development, implementation and evaluation of this program.”

Studies have shown that diversity in education, organisations, workplaces and teams lead to higher returns, innovative ideas and have much high participation and engagement from students and employees.

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