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By  Amy Macintyre 10 July 2024 4 min read

Key points

  • Researcher Dr Katrina Wruck visited a remote school in the Torres Strait Islands to inspire local students with science.
  • Demonstrated success in STEM by someone with a shared cultural background can be motivating for students to pursue their own paths in STEM.
  • Katrina connected with the school through STEM Professionals in Schools, a program that partners professionals in science, technology, engineering and maths with teachers all over Australia.

Earlier this year, Dr Katrina Wruck took a flight on a light aircraft. She was journeying back to her roots in the Torres Strait Islands  not for a tropical island getaway but to inspire the next generation and give back to the community.

Katrina is a researcher in industrial chemistry and materials science at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her work focuses primarily on finding innovative, green solutions for industrial and environmental problems. 

But with ancestral ties to the Mabuigilaig People of Wagedugam, Mabuiag Island, Katrina also prioritises giving back to the Torres Strait Islander community in a meaningful way.

Katrina volunteers with our STEM Professionals in Schools. The program aims to enhance student engagement in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) by creating partnerships between industry professionals and teachers all over Australia.  

She is partnered with a teacher at Tagai State College in Far North Queensland. This offers Katrina a unique opportunity to share her scientific expertise and cultural knowledge with students. 

Sharing Indigenous knowledge and perspectives

Tagai State College comprises of a network of 15 island campuses across 48,000 square kilometres and is the only school in the Torres Strait. 

Lisa Loban is the Mathematics and Science Head of Department at Tagai and Katrina’s teacher partner. Lisa said learning from a STEM professional with a shared cultural background is extremely beneficial. 

 “Approximately 95 per cent of our students identify as Indigenous, and we actively nurture their strong sense of identity at school,” Lisa said.

“We try to engage students by incorporating traditional knowledge and Indigenous perspectives into the Australian Curriculum. Katrina gives greater exposure to the real opportunities and career pathways available to them through STEM.”

Katrina said it’s inspiring and fulfilling to share her journey, experiences, and challenges she has faced with the students. 

“Connecting with Tagai State College through the program is incredibly meaningful to me. It allows me to reconnect with my roots and give back to my community in a powerful way. 

“I find great satisfaction in mentoring and inspiring the next generation of scientists,” Katrina said. 

Contributing to community through STEM

STEM Professionals in Schools supports long-distance and online partnerships to enable connections with any school in Australia. Face-to-face meetings are not always possible, but Katrina was determined to find a way, making the trip earlier this year.

It was no ordinary school visit, requiring a flight out on a Cessna Caravan (a light aircraft) and several nights’ stay. But Katrina said it was worth the effort to personally engage with 12 classes of students from Years 7 to 12. She shared her career journey and aimed to inspire them to pursue university studies. 

“Across all age groups, I emphasised the importance of their cultural knowledge and how it can be integrated into research. I also discussed the opportunities for remote work and how they can pursue higher education and research while staying connected to their community.”

A memorable moment for Katrina was a heartfelt discussion with students about their dreams for their future and how they can contribute to their communities through STEM. 

“I wanted them to understand that they can become experts in their chosen field. They can influence what is researched, how it is researched, and access funding to improve outcomes and infrastructure in their communities. 

“By understanding how STEM disciplines relate to real-world challenges, students can contribute to solving local issues and improving living conditions.”

STEM professionals go the distance

Katrina’s personal takeaway from the visit reaffirmed the importance of representation and role modelling. She believes it's possible to show students the possibilities within STEM, while honouring and integrating their cultural knowledge. This can have a powerful and lasting impact on their lives and aspirations.

As a student, Katrina was actively discouraged from studying higher level maths, and never benefited from a STEM professional visit to her school. She sees her partnership with Lisa and Tagai State College as her way of being that difference for another student’s schooling journey. 

“Seeing someone who shares your cultural heritage succeeding in STEM can be incredibly motivating, and especially beneficial for students in very remote areas such as the Torres Strait. 

“I hope to empower these students to pursue their dreams and contribute to the preservation and advancement of our cultural heritage through research.”

Ongoing connection, ongoing benefits in schools

Lisa and Katrina’s partnership continues through STEM Professionals in Schools, and they plan to continue to connect as opportunities arise.

They didn’t have too long to wait however, as a group of Tagai State College’s Year 10 students recently visited Meanjin (Brisbane) for a school trip. They were able to use the opportunity to meet again. 

Katrina invited them to visit QUT where they met several other staff members from the Torres Strait. The students networked in Creole, their first language. 

Katrina said it was wonderful to see their excitement as they made even further connections with scientists and pathways, all with a shared cultural background. 

“They had a great time, and several students mentioned they are already thinking of pursuing tertiary study. Mission success!”

STEM Professionals in Schools connects schools even in the most remote locations of Australia with cutting-edge science and industry insights. There is no obligation to travel – partnerships can operate fully online and through virtual activities.

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