DiscoveryCamp is inspiring young Māori and Pasifika students to persist with science. Simon Day talks to three graduates about the opportunities the programme has provided.
From studying chemistry in the classroom, suddenly Cha’nel Kaa-Luke (Ngāruahine, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Porou) was in a real lab, learning about quantum computing, the science of social media, and how to detect methamphetamine. This is the hands-on learning of DiscoveryCamp, where Kaa-Luke joined a group of Māori and Pasifika high school students for the annual programme that provides a real understanding of what a career in science looks like. She not only discovered a passion for space science, but she also found a new whānau.
“I have always had an interest in space and the experience was able to give me more exposure to what might possibly be out there. We also got to experience what the Māori culture was like at Victoria and see how these guys work as a whānau away from home,” says Kaa-Luke.
DiscoveryCamp is a science programme designed for Māori and Pasifika students in their final years of high school to enhance their interest in science, and help carve a path for them in the sector. Each year students gather from all around the country where they have the chance to do real research with the country’s leading scientists. For Kaa-Luke, who is deaf, the experience provided her confidence to follow a future in science, and to achieve something unique for people in her position.
DiscoveryCamp applications are open and close 9 September.
“Being deaf has definitely influenced my interest in science, mainly because there are not a lot of deaf people I know who are chemists or marine biologists or geologists. It encourages me to strive for something that not a lot of deaf people have done, or not a lot of hearing people believe is possible for us to do. It makes me want to prove them wrong,” she says.
Māori and Pasifika are under-represented in New Zealand across the sciences. From students studying the physical sciences in high school, through the transition to university, to those at PhD level, these communities encounter barriers to their continued involvement in science.
Stevie-Rae Thocolich (Waikato) grew up on the marae speaking only te reo Māori until she was six. Her fascination for science comes from a desire to understand the way things are in the world. It’s always driven her to try new experiences and take opportunities. Her experience at DiscoveryCamp showed her that her two worlds, te ao Māori and science, can come together, and that she has a long future in science.
“The camp has shown me the different pathways that I can take through science and how they contribute to society. The programme helped us future scientists decide which path will lead to our dreams. I met wonderful people at camp and made four very special friends. The whole experience was amazing, from using high-tech lasers and magnets, to being on the marae,” she says.
According to Jacinta Ruru (Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Maniapoto), University of Otago Law professor and co-director of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga (the Māori Centre of Research Excellence), Māori approaches to science still face significant stigma in New Zealand. This has had a detrimental effect on getting young Māori involved in the sciences.
Programmes like DiscoveryCamp are part of a set of initiatives created to increase the diversity of those involved in the sciences. But they’re also designed to facilitate research that provides solutions for diverse populations, and uses indigenous understandings of science to create those solutions.
Indigenous ways of understanding the world have been marginalised by the scientific community, and it has been one of the barriers to Māori persisting with the sciences. When they do continue their study, those established attitudes have stopped them getting jobs they deserve. For young Māori and Pasifika students this has meant the role models they need just don’t exist, or haven’t got the recognition required to put them in a place of prominence.
“I think as a country we could do more to celebrate and promote Māori who are in the physical sciences who are teaching in the universities and have big research projects, and confidently drawing on both science systems. We need to create ways for our tamariki to continue to be engaged in this field,” Ruru says.
The recognition of an alternative approach does not have to be at the expense of the dominant model. In fact they have huge potential to enhance science’s contribution to New Zealand.
“I believe Māori communities across the country have solutions for us as a country to help us adapt better to major environmental change that are affecting us now. Western science has nothing to lose by recognising indigenous science. We have lots to benefit from if we accept both science systems,” she says.
And DiscoveryCamp has played a significant role in Māori students appreciation of their culture’s place in science. Students like Danielle Sword (Muaūpoko, Te Ati Awa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Tahu) who is is in her final semester of a Bachelor of Biomedical Science. She was guided down this path four years ago when her chemistry teacher urged her to attend DiscoveryCamp.
“I’d say it was one of the key moments in my life. It was an eye opener. It influenced and inspired me to take that science path,” she says.
On the programme she contributed to the work of a PhD student, under Associate Professor Justin Hodgkiss, using gold nanoparticles to test contaminated water. She received hands-on experience on really high-end lab equipment.
“It was a big advancement of knowledge for me, and it was cool to see how something you learn in theory can be put into real practice. I got to know why and how these things worked instead of just how cool they looked,” she says.
She returned to her final year of school full of confidence in her ability and the possibility of science taking her in the direction she wanted. Then during her tertiary studies she completed two summer internships offered by the MacDiarmid Institute. She went on to contribute to a project where silver clustered nanoparticles were joined onto parts of a human cell which gives it a fluorescent tag, allowing scientists to understand what happens when its environment changes.
“It was an eye opener for the different opportunities the field can offer you, where it can take you and the passions it can open up. It made me feel confident that I could do it. I felt comfortable taking any opportunity that came my way,” she says.
As the completion of her undergraduate degree approaches, Sword is deciding whether to pursue further study. She’s seen the way her understanding of tikanga Māori has informed her understanding of her discipline, and she is interested to pursue research which considers the potential of Māori science to intersect with Western science, and what both cultures have to offer each other.
“For Māori, I do know there is this other side, there’s science, then there is this Māori science. They don’t fully meet together but one of my goals is to bring it into my western science practices,” she says.
The MacDiarmid DiscoveryCamp – Te Tohu Huraina is all expenses paid, including flights, accommodation and meals. Students can choose to attend either the University of Otago or Massey University Palmerston North.
DiscoveryCamp applications are open and close 9 September.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.