Walking around in sand country, munching on arnguli (plum bush) and collecting plants, might not seem to be a science lesson at first glance, but this is exactly what the students at Haasts Bluff School in the Northern Territory were doing for their on country botany lesson.
Haasts Bluff (Ikuntji) is 250km west of Alice Springs and home to around 200 people. The local school is one of 11 schools participating in the Science Pathways for Indigenous Communities program which covers the Western Desert region of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
Science Pathways NT Senior Coordinator, Meg Mooney said students collected specimens from fourteen different plants from the country during their lesson. Some of these plants are still used for food or medicine and others - such as those with seeds - are ground up to make damper in the same way the students’ great grandmothers did.
“The students were very excited to find ipalu or bush banana, although the fruits were too old and dry to eat. People eat them when they are fresh and crunchy; they’re more like tiny corn cobs than bananas.”
“After the field trip, we mounted the plants on paper, and the students labelled the Pintupi Luritja names of the plant, their uses and where they grow,” Meg said. They are now on display and documented in a booklet which the school can continue to use for other classroom activities.
The Science Pathways team works with primary and middle school students in remote communities to support the teaching of skills and knowledge identified by Indigenous teachers and elders in each community as important for the education of their children to look after country. The CSIRO links the traditional knowledge to Western Science and the Australian Curriculum to ensure the learnings into the classroom spark an interest in science subjects.
Other activities include overnight camps where students learn about astronomy and linking up with the local Indigenous rangers to learn about wildlife and environmental preservation.
“We also run Indigenous language and culture planning workshops with Indigenous education staff. In March this year, we had one of the largest gatherings of Western Desert region Indigenous education staff in decades. Most of the workshop was conducted in Pintupi Luritja and Pitjantjatjara, Western Desert dialects which are the first language of all the Indigenous staff present,” Meg said.
“We had assistant teachers from Areyonga, Haasts Bluff, Kintore, Mt Liebig and Papunya schools in the Northern Territory and Kiwirrkurra school in Western Australia come together to draft local seasons calendars, see a demonstration lesson, plan combined school bush trips to teach children about country, and learn about teaching complex syllables. We have another language and culture workshop in August which we hope will be as successful as the one in March,” she said.
Science Pathways for Indigenous Communities is one element of the Indigenous STEM Education Project which is delivered by CSIRO and funded by the BHP Billiton Foundation.
In the Northern Territory, Science Pathways operates mainly in three Western Desert communities, working with Indigenous assistant teachers and elders programs with an on-country focus. Science Pathways also operates in eight Western Desert communities in Western Australia.
National Science Week runs from 12 - 20 August.