STEM pathways for Indigenous students

Return to Country Program pioneers new approach to unlocking STEM pathways for Indigenous students.

Return to Country Program pioneers new approach to unlocking STEM pathways for Indigenous students.

The University of Melbourne Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology (FEIT) is pioneering a new Return to Country Program to spark interest in STEM pathways among Indigenous regional, rural and remote communities, with a group of FEIT Indigenous staff and students visiting schools and Indigenous communities in regional New South Wales this week.

Through storytelling and a suite of activities, the group is meeting communities in Bourke, Brewarrina, Goodooga and Enngonia and will reconnect with their mobs, make meaningful contributions to their communities and expose primary and secondary students, their families and communities to the exciting opportunities that engineering and information technology university study can provide.

As part of the Return to Country Program, FEIT is today hosting an inaugural Return to Country STEM Oration in Bourke, to activate a national dialogue for universities, industry, government and Indigenous communities to find better ways to ensure that Indigenous people can fully participate in the benefits that future STEM technologies will provide.

University of Melbourne Associate Dean (Indigenous) Dr Joseph West, a Murawarri engineer from the NSW Culgoa River region and a Fulbright Scholar in the FEIT School of Computing and Information Systems, will deliver the Oration to an audience of Indigenous elders, community leaders, teachers, local councillors, government representatives and others. The event will also broadcast online for a national audience.

Bourke, NSW.
FEIT Associate Dean (Indigenous) Dr Joseph West and Master of Mechanical Engineering student Tully Mahr in Bourke, NSW.

Other speakers will include FEIT Master of Mechanical Engineering student Tully Mahr, a Gundungurra woman, who recently completed an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California; Aunty Josie Bino, Murrawarri Indigenous Elder from Weilmoringle; and Susan Beetson, Ngemba Traditional Owner, University of Queensland. A panel of academics and school principals will conclude the event, discussing ways to overcome barriers to STEM education.

Dr West said the Return to Country Program was designed to reach Indigenous students and communities who have had very little exposure to the benefits and opportunities of engineering and STEM education.

“Every stage in the pipeline to becoming an engineering professional is nearly empty for Indigenous Australians, including the very first one – the desire for young Indigenous students to become engineers. Universities have an important role to play in enabling the spark of interest for young Indigenous students to pursue engineering,” Dr West said.

“More than a decade ago, the 2011 work by Pechenkina et al ‘Indigenous Australian Students’ Participation Rates in Higher Education,’ identified Indigenous participation in STEM as a critically urgent issue. Recent numbers show that only 0.5 per cent of the Indigenous population have engineering degrees, compared to 5.2 per cent of the non-Indigenous population, as reported by Science and Technology Australia (2020).”

Dr West says Australian universities, industry and government need “a paradigm shift” and must focus on building and nurturing a pipeline of Indigenous engineering interest, to boost participation for Indigenous students.

“Unless we build and fill this pipeline, universities and industry will be forever competing for the same pool of Indigenous academic talent, that is, those people who are already succeeding at high school. Despite a growing awareness and appreciation of Indigenous culture, the challenges have proven to be beyond the reach of good-will. They point to continuing issues that enable entrance for the group who match the existing cohort and continued barriers for those who do not,” Dr West said.

“Strategies are changing within many universities, through initiatives such as alternative access pathways, scholarships and other incentives. For instance, the Victorian Indigenous Engineering Winter School (VIEWS) is now offered by four Victorian universities to Year 10, 11 and 12 Indigenous students from across Australia, with transport and accommodation provided. The five-day program expands participants’ perspectives on engineering and information technology and has been so successful that VIEWS alumni are now part of the University’s mentoring and leadership program.

“These steps are important, but more needs to be done. Indigenous people cover every corner of Australia. Ensuring that our engineering profession is a true option will require a national effort.”

The Return to Country STEM Oration will be live streamed on Wednesday 21 February at 6.15 pm. Register for the live stream: http://unimelb.me/42GHwcJ

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