• The Dark Emu of Aboriginal sky lore, seen within the Milky Way. Indigenous cultures hold an immeasurable wealth of scientific knowledge. (Getty images)Source: Getty images
Taught by a team of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander science practitioners, students of this new subject are given a deeper appreciation of the fact that science itself is a culture.
Rae Johnston

28 Aug 2020 - 9:14 AM  UPDATED 4 Sep 2020 - 11:12 AM

Kamilaroi woman and astrophysicist Krystal De Napoli has just been recruited to be in the classroom as Monash University delivers its newest subject; Indigenous science: Science through the eyes of Australia's first peoples.

"I've grown up as a big nerd that's obsessed with science," Ms De Napoli told NITV. "And the fact that I get to explore my cultural connection and my science together is absolutely amazing." 

Monash University Faculty of Science's Dr Angela Ziebell, the unit coordinator for the course, said it would introduce students to the presence of science in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practices.

"It is time to recognise the wealth and depth of knowledge of Australia's Indigenous peoples," said Dr Ziebell. "After completing this unit, they will have a much deeper appreciation of different traditions and knowledge and will better prepared to take on new knowledge, and appreciate different views and approaches towards science."

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The new unit is supported by Monash University's William Cooper Institute - a hub for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, learning and engagement and promoting Indigenous leadership and advancement across the University. 

Before the course begins, however, all 50 students will receive cultural competency training. 

"We make sure everybody starts off on the same understanding of the past and what led to things like loss of knowledge and changes in oral traditions," Dr Ziebell told NITV. 

The course will cover a diverse range of topics - from geology and ecology to chemistry and astronomy. Ms De Napoli said she would be teaching students about how certain stars map the beginning of seasons. 

"Then we'll be relating that back with the astrophysics of how we have these correlations, how we can read the night sky," Ms De Napoli told NITV. "Showing that really strong link between how Indigenous science is, or Indigenous astronomy is, just science."

"Because astronomy as it is, is observation, and Indigenous astronomy is observation."

"We'll be exploring the colours of stars because there's a number of traditions which describe variable stars that change over time. Then jumping again into the astrophysics side of things as to why this happens, and what this means about the properties of the star. So it's hand in hand."

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When it comes to sharing Indigenous knowledge, not all of it is for everyone. Dr Ziebell told NITV Monash only plans to use materials where permissions to share the knowledge have been given. 

"Material that is very obviously made by people who have decided to share that information very widely. We're not going into the archives and finding things that we recorded a while ago and then repeating them. We're making sure that it's in the public domain already."

As soon as the course was announced, enrolments flooded in. There's a waiting list now, but there won't be any new places opened up just yet. 

"We do want to deal with all these material sensitively and grow it at a reasonable pace," Dr Ziebell told NITV. "You've got to be able to have the conversations. You've got to be able to treat materials sensitively and talk to the students you can't deliver this at a high quality to 10 times as many students at once."

Ms De Napoli says this course is important for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. 

"A lot of people that I've met didn't even know that Indigenous Australians have scientific knowledge, which is completely shocking."

"I would have loved to take this unit, and I know a lot of other students who wish they had the opportunity to do so. So I'm just hoping that other universities do the same."