Some things are best explored on Country. Among them? How to bring together ancient wisdom and modern science in a powerful affirmation of culture and identity.
Our Deadly in Generation STEM camp took place over four exciting days in October. It brought together 17 Aboriginal students from Year 8 to 10, representing several schools in the Illawarra region. They were all interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The days were packed. From astronomy and coding drones to bush medicine, dancing, and bush regeneration, the camp fuelled student’s curiosity while bridging the gap between Indigenous knowledge and local STEM opportunities. With the guidance of Cultural Knowledge Holders, local STEM experts, and mentors, the students engaged in hands-on activities centred around the theme of 'Caring for Country'.
Cliodhna Maguire, a Gamilaroi woman living on Dharawal country, is the First Nations Youth Community Greening Officer at the Botanic Gardens of Sydney. She was also our camp mentor.
“I decided to participate because tying in culture, education and science is everything that I do,” Cliodhna said.
“It’s my passion and job and being able to do that with young kids and other deadly Aboriginal scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians is inspiring.”
Mentors connect STEM and Indigenous knowledge
The camp began with students going on a Cultural Ecological Walk to learn about traditional medicines and tools used by Dharawal people. Guided by Aunty May and Uncle Peter Button, the students explored the region’s biodiversity while gaining insights into sustainable practices and local plant knowledges.
Aunty May, from Gunaikurnai and Dharawal Country, believes in delivering STEM programs on Country. She thinks it's important because it helps students understand their environment and learn how to care for it. Her hope is that students will not only learn about science but also discover who they are and what they can achieve.
“They need to know that anything is possible,” she said.
Mentorship is a significant part of the camp. It aids in guiding the students to resources and people they can connect with. Letitia Holmes, a Darumbal woman and a laboratory technician at BlueScope was one of the Aboriginal engineers who the students were lucky to hear from.
Letitia shared her own career journey with the students, explaining that she only discovered her path as an adult. She shared how she connects dreaming to finding solutions, and the relationship between art and science in engineering.
“Be open to trying all parts of STEM. Try chemistry, biology, and physics. Try as many things as you can because later, you’ll have a much larger selection to choose from. Plus, a lot of the jobs we have nowadays didn’t exist five to ten years ago," Letitia said.
Indigenous science speaks to modern innovations
On the second day, students delved into the physics of boomerangs. Leading the session was Uncle Richard Campbell from Gumaraa, an Aboriginal tour group and education company based in the Illawarra. They explored their connections to modern innovations such as drones, helicopters, and wind turbines. In an interactive session, students were given the opportunity to code drones to discover how navigation techniques have evolved over time.
Sebastian, one of our participants, particularly enjoyed the boomerang throwing.
“We got to learn how they function and how to properly throw them from a Knowledge Holder,” he said.
The other highlight for Sebastian was meeting new people and growing as a person.
That night the group dived into Aboriginal astronomy led by CSIRO Astronomer and Gija man, Stacy Mader. From him, they learned about celestial navigation, traditional constellations, and the significance of the night sky in Indigenous culture. The students watched the 64-metre square telescope swing as Stacy took over Murriyang, the Parkes radio telescope to explore the sky for signs of pulsars.
Regeneration through Indigenous knowledge
On the third day, Elder Uncle Peter spoke of the history and significance of the Sandon Point Aboriginal Embassy. They then participated in bush regeneration activities at Coomaditchie Lagoon.
They learned about the vital aspects of restoring and conserving local ecosystems, including the importance of weeding. The group also studied sustainable materials and design principles, gaining valuable insights into how Indigenous knowledge plays a pivotal role in creating environmentally friendly solutions. Cliodhna led the session.
“STEM brings together so many different concepts, people and perspectives to solve problems, and to interact with and understand the world,” she said.
“It helps to create a universal model where everyone is considered in engineering, technology and science. We're considering all people, animals, flora, and landscape.
“It's important because we're understanding how great Australia is as a natural landscape and how Aboriginal people have learned, harnessed and improved it. They’ve worked alongside the land for many years and STEM can walk alongside that two-way thinking."
The day concluded with a session on maths through dancing, led by Uncle Richard. While they might appear unrelated initially, the connection between maths and dancing became obvious through the session. In Aboriginal dancing, musical elements such as drumming and chanting follow rhythmic patterns, which can be understood using mathematical principles. Maths and dancing are interconnected through mathematical algorithms such as patterns, sequences, and rhythm. This connection highlights how maths permeates various aspects of life, even the art of dancing.
Nurturing Indigenous students on Country
The final day allowed the students to unpack their learnings, connect with last year’s participants, find ways to explore STEM pathways and connect with their local Community.
For Mitchell, a participating student, a highlight was learning how to code the drones. Science is his favourite subject at school. But from his camp experience, he’s also learned that Indigenous people were the first scientists in Australia and that their knowledge has carried through time and is used today.
Meanwhile, student Bianca signed up for the camp to step outside her comfort zone.
“I’ve learned about constellations, bush tucker, and coding. I would recommend this camp to other students because it’s an opportunity to have fun and learn new things," she said.
The students left with memories, new connections, artefacts reflecting their journeys, and the knowledge that STEM skills are reflected in their every day.
“I hope these students go home with an understanding that they are supported, seen and heard. Their journey doesn’t have to be linear; they can zigzag, hop, or take a step back. Regardless of their path, they should be proud of who they are. Whether they’re a STEM scientist or not, as an Aboriginal person, they have science in their blood,” Cliodhna said.