Sharni Cox, a 19-year-old science student at the University of Tasmania with a passion for geology and robotics, is one of the first winners of the Indigenous STEM Awards launched this year.
Presented by the CSIRO in collaboration with the BHP Billiton Foundation, the awards are aimed at celebrating the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and scientists who are studying and working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
Despite Indigenous knowledge systems; ecology, astronomy, biology and engineering having sustained Australia for thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are very underrepresented in today's scientific workforce. Approximately 2 per cent of Indigenous people are employed in professional scientific and technical services compared to 7 per cent of non-Indigenous, with Indigenous Australians only making up nearly 3 per cent of the population. The proportion is roughly the same of those working in agriculture, forestry and fishing industries.
Incentives like the Indigenous STEM awards contribute to closing the gap, widened by the last two centuries of colonial attitudes of active Indigenous participation being excluded from scientific investigation in Australia.
Cox was awarded the STEM Student Award along with Greta Stephensen, a year 11 student from Fraser Island. She says she burst into tears after she received the news of her accomplishment.
“I was extremely surprised because what they told us was we weren’t supposed to find out until early December and then I was told probably like the third week in November,” Cox tells SBS Science.
“I received a call really early in the morning and I was actually still asleep… and I was just so completely surprised that I didn’t really know what to say at all.”
Cox explains that she found out about the Awards and decided to apply after participating in the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS) program, which is part of the larger Indigenous STEM Education Project.
She says the summer school not only encouraged her and other Indigenous students to further explore their STEM interests, but it also gave her an opportunity to connect with her cultural heritage by meeting Indigenous elders and sharing their individual stories.
“I’m forever grateful to that camp, I made lifelong friends on that camp and it was one of the best experiences of my life,” Cox says.
“Apart from my family, I have never felt so at home in my life, like it was one of the most comfortable few weeks of my life, I just felt like I could be exactly who I wanted to be.”
Cox has just finished her exams as part of the pathway course geared towards providing Indigenous students entry into a Bachelor of Science, where she hopes to major in geology or computer science.
“I’ve always had like a fascination and interest in crystals, how they form, and mineralogy and that kind of stuff.”
“I’ve always had like a fascination and interest in crystals, how they form, and mineralogy and that kind of stuff,” she says.
Her passion for computer science stems from exposure to robotics in high school, where she took part in a global competition that saw her team, RoboSquad United, travel to The Netherlands to compete in the dance-theatre category.
“Our whole project was on Aladdin, so we designed a genie, a flying carpet, a monkey and Jafar… and we basically integrated it all together so that we were able to perform a dance piece,” she says.
“To travel overseas for something that you love and are passionate about was just unbelievable.”
Her team ended up winning three world titles, so it’s little wonder that Cox is eager to excel not just for herself but to also inspire other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.
Therese Potsma, director of the Indigenous STEM Education Project, says the interest shown by Indigenous students towards the sciences is not being replicated in the classroom.
“The importance of this project is to ensure Indigenous students have equitable opportunity to participate in today’s workforce but also the future workforce,” she told SBS Science.
“The importance of this project is to ensure Indigenous students have equitable opportunity to participate in today’s workforce but also the future workforce.”
“What we’re trying to do with these awards is recognise the great work that Indigenous students and professionals are currently doing and to inspire Indigenous students to want to do the same and give them the confidence that they can do the same.”
As part of the initial judging panel for the Awards, Potsma says the competition was fierce.
“We had some very high caliber students, teachers, professionals and schools that put nominations in… some of those stories are very inspirational,” Potsma says.
The Awards’ winners have all been invited to become Indigenous STEM ambassadors for next year, which Cox hopes to use as a platform to launch her own idea of going into schools to provide one-on-one coaching and support for students with an interest in STEM.
“That’s something I’ve always been really passionate about and wanted to do and now that I have the support network to do that, I’m really keen on making that happen,” she says.
Recipients of the 2016 Indigenous STEM Awards:
Dr Chris Matthews: STEM Professional Award Winner
Renee Cawthorne: STEM Professional Award Runner Up
Greta Stephensen and Sharni Cox: STEM Student Award Winner
Gordonvale State High School: School Award
Glenala State High School: School Award Runner Up
Claire Wellbeloved: Teacher Award Winner
Adam Hooper: STEM Champion Award Winner