Science and Indigenous culture

Imagine rural towns where the whole community comes together to celebrate local Indigenous culture, respecting the locally important sites, cultural expressions and methods of resource management and exploitation, all within an inclusive, two way learning environment.

Imagine scientists, teachers and Aboriginal elders, parents and children coming together to research and learn how Aboriginal people survived and thrived in the Australian environment. Imagine young Indigenous students enthusiastically teaching and demonstrating science to their peers. And imagine the benefits such an inclusive program would bring to Indigenous youth, their parents and elders, and the community as a whole.

In northern NSW, just such an initiative is bearing fruit. The River of Learning, part of Macquarie University’s National Indigenous Science Education Program (NISEP), has contributed to several significant outcomes for the small communities of Maclean and Yamba and the Yaegl Aboriginal people of northern NSW.

The project, which focuses on the mighty Clarence River, has improved Indigenous student retention at high school, instilled pride and confidence in Aboriginal students and increased scientific and cultural literacy across the whole community.

Funded by Inspiring Australia, NISEP is a collaboration of academics, Indigenous elders and communities, secondary schools and researchers. Together this broad based group aims to increase the level of engagement with science among rural and regional communities. NISEP is particularly focussed on communities with a high Indigenous population and achieves its goals by involving Aboriginal high school students as teachers in programs within their schools, teaching and demonstrating science to their peers.

In addition, NISEP works closely with local Indigenous communities, developing programs that reinforce Indigenous knowledge systems and presents them in parallel with western scientific concepts. One of the success stories of the NISEP collaboration is the annual Maclean High School River of Learning celebration.

The River of Learning is a cooperatively developed initiative of the Yaegl Aboriginal elders, Maclean High School teachers and NISEP. It uses local sites of Aboriginal cultural significance to educate students about Indigenous culture and scientific principles during excursions led by science teachers and Aboriginal elders. It culminates each year with a celebration of science and Indigenous culture and a school and community science expo, run by Indigenous secondary student volunteers.

Over five years the River of Learning has expanded to provide environmental education to the whole school community and beyond, with parents and other community members taking part in excursions, science expos and celebration days. The River of Learning has instilled in a generation of Maclean High School students a respect for their local environment and Indigenous culture and a passion for science. A student volunteer this year said of the program: “Ever since year 7 I have been involved in this and I love it! I always look forward to learning something new and I enjoy demonstrating science”.

If this is the type of activity that stimulates your interest, the River of Learning is only one of the many successful initiatives of NISEP. Each year we bring our group together during National Science Week, for a celebration of science and culture at the Redfern Community Centre.

This event allows collaboration and a sharing of stories for Aboriginal people, educators, researchers and academics from all around Australia. It’s great opportunity to see what NISEP does and meet the Indigenous contributors to our programs.

Dave Harrington is a Research Officer with the National Indigenous Science Education Program, Macquarie University. For more information, please visit NISEP’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.