Kangaroo tails are roasting on the fire, and little children are squealing with excitement, their faces streaked with white paint.
By the firepit, a circle of Anangu women elders sing old hymns in Pitjantjatjara language as a large group of teenagers watch on, many with tears in their eyes.
This summer science school isn’t your average holiday camp.
Run by CSIRO, the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Science and Technology is designed to blend culture and science for Indigenous high school students.
Some of the students attending the camp from across Australia don’t know much at all about their Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage. Firepit night is just one of a range of activities designed to help them build a closer connection to culture.
Painting, dancing, weaving, and yarn-ups are on the timetable too.
As well as a whole lot of science.
“Aboriginal people in Australia have been practising science and the scientific method for 60,000 or 80,000 years,” says Seth Westland, a mentor at the summer school.
Less than one per cent of students enrolled in university courses in the natural and physical sciences, information technology, and engineering are Indigenous.
Seth, who has family connections to the Awabakal and Wiradjuri people of New South Wales, wants that picture to change.
He believes Aboriginal-led research will benefit communities, and change the way science gets done, ensuring it is better informed by Indigenous perspectives.
“The more that we are included in and afforded opportunities to be involved within society, whether that be science, finance, government, the more cohesive I believe we are going to be… as an Australian community,” he says.
“We have a lot to give…society has a lot that it could gain.”
Lighting curiosity and ambition in Indigenous students
Science educator Torres Webb coaches students at the summer school on the essentials of experimental design and data collection.
In one activity he gets students to run trials to compare two different Indigenous fire-making methods.
It’s surprisingly difficult — even a wisp of smoke is hard for the students to conjure.
Torres grew up in Far North Queensland with a close connection to his Torres Strait family’s cultural practices and traditions.
“[It] really instilled and activated a sense of wanting to protect, preserve, and share knowledge and culture,” he says.
At high school, Torres had ambitions to go to university.
But his teachers had other ideas, pushing him towards less academic vocational subjects.
Torres says their low expectations of him were obvious.
“[That] you need to be doing something that’s more aimed at your level, like the rest of the Indigenous people,” he says.
His determination resulted in a cadetship that allowed him to study environmental science management at Southern Cross University.
Torres is now a coordinator with CSIRO’s Enquiry for Indigenous Science Students Program, which supports teachers to embed Indigenous knowledge in the science curriculum.
“We’ve seen marked improvement in student achievement and engagement, not only for Indigenous students, but non-Indigenous students, because it’s hands-on, fun, exciting, and linked to a local community context where we can connect the school and the community together.”
“We know it takes a village to raise our children,” says Torres.
His mother’s truncated education under the punitive Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act in Queensland (similar laws operated in other states), was also a driving force for him.
“My mum wasn’t allowed to go to school past Year 6, as part of the government policy at that time,” he says.
The long tail of trauma
Rosemary Wanganeen, a 63-year-old Kaurna/Koogatha/Wirrangu elder and summer school cultural leader, knows the trauma of this legacy all too well.
Her mother died when she was just nine years old and authorities removed her and her siblings — including a two-month-old baby — from her father.
They were the only Aboriginal family in a white town, having been granted exemption certificates to move away from the Point Pearce Mission in Adelaide.
“I was born into policies that were about assimilating, and being raised on missions and reserves where you were contained, controlled and manipulated psychologically, to deny your Aboriginality and your cultural beliefs and practices,” she says.
She sees the subterranean effects of that past on Indigenous children today.
As a member of the Stolen Generation, Rosemary now runs the Australian Institute for Loss and Grief, a business she established to help other Indigenous people with their own healing and growth.
“The educational system tends to miss past traumas. [Students] could be in university for a whole year doing fantastically and then they’ll have a trigger unbeknownst even to themselves.”
Rosemary believes this partly explains lower university completion rates by Indigenous students. Education institutions need to give more culturally aware support to help them stay the course, she says.
This is part of her role as a cultural advisor with Adelaide University’s Indigenous unit Wirtlu Yarlu.
Historical science affects attitudes
There’s another reason why university has felt out of bounds for many Indigenous families.
University scholars, especially scientists, did research that underpinned racist policies and practices of the past.
“There are scientists who used to measure Aboriginal people’s heads, and made a determination we weren’t quite human,” says Rosemary.
Those memories, mistrust, and a palpable sense of fear of institutions like universities have been passed down the generations in some Aboriginal families.
“That can then be a barrier to not just accessing, but also staying and completing the degree.”
Only 2.4 per cent of students enrolled in medical degrees in Australia are Indigenous.
Jasmyn Lloyd, a 19-year-old Ngarrindjeri woman and student ambassador at the summer school, is one of them.
Jasmyn was passionate about science as a child, even visiting the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States with her family. Now she’s hell-bent on becoming a rural GP.
“Growing up in a community as small as Roxby Downs, you really get to know that a lot of country towns need doctors.”
She is thriving at university but faced significant hurdles last year.
“It was the best year of my life, and the worst year of my life.”
Jasmyn had to return home for sorry business after two relatives died. Sorry business is an important time for mourning and cultural practices in extended Indigenous families after a death.
She is now repeating all of first year again in order to catch up on the month-and-a-half she missed.
“The med school’s very old and they’re not really fully aware quite yet of the commitments of sorry business.”
Studying and staying strong to culture
Tina Brodie, a Yawarrawarrka/Yandruwandha woman and research assistant at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, says Australian universities and workplaces have a long way to go to be culturally inclusive.
“People might see sorry business as pulling us away from what we should be doing,” says Tina.
“It’s not. That’s our cultural value.”
However, for some Indigenous university students, it can feel like a tough choice – sacrificing cultural identity, or staying strong to culture and sacrificing education.
“Why do we not have both?” asks Tina.
Tina grew up in Kalgoorlie where university wasn’t presented as an option for her and her Indigenous high school peers.
She says she had to leave the town to realise her potential, and after working in social work and having children, she’s now enrolled in a PhD at the University of South Australia.
“Being strong in yourself and your identity really sets you up to be able to bring that to whatever you do, and can ground you for years to come,” she says.
“You feel like you can’t go wrong, like there’s something always holding you and supporting you. That’s our culture, that’s our ancestors, that’s who we are, that’s our community.”
Connecting Indigenous knowledge with Western science
Tiahni Adamson attended the Aboriginal summer school 10 years ago, when she was in Year 10.
She found the experience transformational. It prompted her to meet her Indigenous father for the first time after the camp.
“I knew that it was the start, that my life would never be the same again,” she says.
“After being able to engage in things like firepit night with all these people of varying stages of understanding their own cultural identity, I felt inspired to learn more about my own”, she says.
Now a summer school mentor, she’s also in the final months of a bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation biology at Adelaide University.
Tiahni wants to use her scientific expertise to work alongside Indigenous communities.
“I hope to marry our old Indigenous knowledges with Western science … to nurture sustainable living practices on country and look after the land,” says Tiahni.
She’s well on her way to achieving this: Tiahni teaches science at the annual Garma Festival’s Yothu Yindi youth forum in Arnhem Land.
And she was also the recipient of the first Indigenous Time at Sea Scholarship, spending last Christmas at sea on CSIRO’s research vessel, RV Investigator.
A transformational experience
At the end of the camp, friendships have been forged, and the tears flow again as the students get ready to farewell each other.
They’ve cried, laughed, designed and conducted experiments, presented their results, played footy, done workshops on Dreamtime mathematics and other science activities, met working scientists, toured the University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum, checked out the MOD museum, and much more.
But the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Science and Technology doesn’t quite end here — each of the students will be supported by a CSIRO mentor for their last two years of high school.
It’s clear that they’ve all been transformed in some way by the experience — even the shyest of students get up at the final dinner to share their reflections.
One teen perfectly sums up what they are all leaving with.
Credit: Source link