Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are Australia’s and the world’s first scientists. For over 60 000 years, Australia’s First Nations Peoples have cared for and managed vast and diverse landscapes through their intimate understanding of the stars, land, sea and climate. Despite this rich scientific heritage, however, the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is approximately two-and-a-half years for science and maths (Programme for International Student Assessment, 2018). Recognising the need to address this disparity as a priority, In2science hosted an online forum, “Indigenous STEM engagement – Celebrating Australia’s First Scientists”. This event brought together an inspirational and dynamic panel of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander STEM experts to discuss how to engage young First Nations People in STEM and build pride in Indigenous scientific knowledge, both inside and outside of Indigenous communities.
“Kids are the best engineers. They are the best scientists because they ask the best questions.” – Corey Tutt, Founder and CEO of Deadly Science
Corey Tutt, a proud Kamilaroi man, 2020 NSW Young Australian of the Year, and the Founder and CEO of Deadly Science, a charity that provides STEM resources to remote school across Australia, started the evening with a stirring keynote presentation about his story and how Deadly Science is helping to build STEM aspirations for young First Nations kids.
“Our culture is the oldest living culture in the world that we know of. To survive we had to be good observers, we had to be great engineers, we had to be even better chemists. We had to be good technologists, we had to be great scientists and science starts with observation. When we observe and we find problems, our solutions are methodically thought out.” – Corey Tutt, Founder and CEO of Deadly Science
Multi-award-winning STEM journalist and broadcaster, Rae Johnston described her own experiences with STEM and then facilitated this important panel discussion. Associate Professor Misty Jenkins, who heads an immunotherapy lab in cancer research at WEHI and was the first Indigenous Australian to attend Oxford and Cambridge universities as a postdoctoral research fellow, discussed the topic in relation to her important work in developing treatments for brain cancer, and how her ancestry have influenced her approach to science.
“I come from a long line of storytellers, and I grew up hearing stories about how my ancestors would burn a certain type of plant when they birthed their babies because there was something in the smoke that kept the environment free from germs and modern science has actually now verified that.” – Associate Professor Misty Jenkins, WEHI
Yemurraki Egan, a proud Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara man, who works at The University of Melbourne and currently studies engineering at Swinburne University of Technology provided practical advice about how universities can improve the experience of First Nations students to encourage and retain them over the course of their degrees.
“If you put the same amount of effort, dedication and ambition that you do in sports and arts into STEM, you would see Indigenous people succeed just as much.” – Yemurraki Egan, The University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology
Mibu Fischer has been employed by CSIRO for 10 years and in that time has found her niche in marine ethnoecology, with a focus on strengthening partnerships between First Nations communities and current fisheries, for improved coastal and conservation management. Mibu is a proud Quandamooka woman, who took the opportunity to speak about her STEM pathway and how Traditional Knowledge can be incorporated with Western science.
“The best way [to communicate Traditional Knowledge] is through education. It’s also feeling safe to educate those around us. It’s around finding supportive allies in these spaces to create a platform to get our stories out there.” – Mibu Fischer, CSIRO
Over the course of the evening, audience members asked thought provoking questions pertaining to how to communicate Traditional Scientific Knowledge to non-Indigenous Australians, how universities can better support Indigenous students and how the education system can be more inclusive of young First Nations children.
“It’s important for teachers to know that not every kid they work with is going to become a doctor or a scientist or is going to become an absolute world champion, but they have a right to believe that they can.” – Corey Tutt, Founder and CEO of Deadly Science
Overall, the event highlighted the diverse and incredible connections First Australians have had, and continue to have, with science and maths over millennia, despite their under-representation in STEM subjects at school and in the workforce. More importantly, this discussion taught us much about the barriers that many young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders face that can prevent them from pursuing a career in STEM, while also outlining ways that schools, universities, and the public can incorporate more inclusive practices to support young Indigenous students.
“STEM is for all.” – Corey Tutt, Founder and CEO of Deadly Science
In2science gratefully acknowledges GHD for sponsoring this event. In2science would also like to express our sincere thanks to Mr Corey Tutt, A/Prof Misty Jenkins, Ms Mibu Fischer, Mr Yemurraki Egan and Ms Rae Johnston for sharing their stories and thoughts with us. We look forward to continuing the discussion about how scientists from all disciplines can work in partnership with Indigenous Australian scientists to help secure Australia’s future in an ever-changing climate and environment.
If you missed the event, a recording is available and can be viewed here.