24 August, 2021
The MacDiarmid Institute’s DiscoveryCamp is continuing to help young Māori and Pacific Island students to realise their potential in science, giving them an opportunity to experience all kinds of scientific discovery in a culturally safe space.
First published in The Spinoff.
It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to know encouraging young, diverse demographics into science takes time, investment and positive representation from those already there.
But there’s still work to be done to ensure that indigenous knowledge is given its rightful space alongside, and within, scientific study – and the first step is ensuring a more diverse scientific community.
Every year, a select group of students from high schools around Aotearoa are chosen to attend the MacDiarmid Institue’s DiscoveryCamp. The annual programme, now in its 10th year, gathers together Māori and Pacific Island students to do real research with the country’s leading scientists.
“The MacDiarmid Institute’s DiscoveryCamp helped me to rediscover and grow the reasons why I love science and gave me more confidence to pursue my passion in science. It gave me confidence in my own personal ability and a career pathway in science” says Micheal Taylor (Lautoka, Fiji), a student at Papatoetoe High School who attended the camp in January this year.
The programme’s aim is to enhance the students’ science knowledge, inspire a love of discovery, and help them to carve out a career in science. Every year, some DiscoveryCamp alumni are given the opportunity to gain further hands-on experience and knowledge in MacDiarmid Institute labs during their summer university break. Participants carry out real life research and are given an insight into where tertiary study can lead.
“At DiscoveryCamp we got to play with a programme that actually showed us how nanotechnology worked and we could build our own nanotechnology with it. We got to do lots of our own experiments. On the last day, we got to blow up teddy bears using liquid nitrogen,” says Lytton High School student Page Richter (Taranaki, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Ngāti Porou).
Besides providing an opportunity to work alongside leading scientists with state-of-the-art equipment, the programme also provides students with an insight into what university life looks like and potential career pathways available to them. Participants are given tours of the cities where the camps are, meet like-minded peers, and spend time picking the brains of some of the country’s brightest talents.
“We got to work with some of New Zealand’s leading scientists and to work with state-of-the-art equipment like the electron microscope. We went sightseeing, we went to restaurants, it’s a good mix of science, sightseeing, and social interaction,” says Taylor.
Astrophysicist Dr Pauline Harris (Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāti Kahungunu) is Principal Investigator and programme leader for the MacDiarmid Institute’s Mātauranga Māori Research Programme and Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. She says programmes like DiscoveryCamp are important tools for improving traditionally low rates of participation from Māori and Pacific Island students in STEM subjects. These kinds of initiatives show students that they are valued, gives them experience, information about scholarships, and ongoing support, she says.
“One thing DiscoveryCamp does is demystify the university system. The students come in and see that it’s not such a big and scary thing. Another thing it does is bring people together who are interested in the same sort of topics, which creates support networks.”
As a young person, Harris developed a passion for space and astronomy. She went on to graduate with a degree in mathematics and physics, before studying a masters in cosmology at the University of Canterbury. From there, she continued to pursue her passion for the stars, completing a PhD in astroparticle physics. Harris combined her love of mātauranga Māori and science, eventually becoming a lecturer and researcher, and she currently sits on a number of scientific boards including the Matariki Advisory Committee for our new public holiday.
“I always loved science,” Harris says. “I was always curious about how things worked. I wanted to know why the sky was pink, or different colours, during a sunset. I always loved the stars and I’ve always loved space. I remember finding an old National Geographic and it had a picture of Matariki in it and it was just absolutely beautiful. I cut the picture out and put it on my wall.”
Despite her immense love for science, Harris admits that growing up, she was not taught about mātauranga Māori at school and found it tough not seeing any value being placed on traditional knowledge systems. It wasn’t until she reached university that she became fully aware of the difficulties she would face attempting to reconcile mātauranga Māori and western ideologies of science.
“We didn’t really get taught anything about mātauranga Māori when I was at high school. I learnt about Rangi and Papa in art class. I didn’t learn about the Land Wars or our waka coming to Aotearoa New Zealand at school but I learnt about other topics from other countries.”
Harris says a programme such as DiscoveryCamp would have helped to open her mind to different career paths at a younger age, and that such a change in mindset is invaluable for the participants of the camp. Like many other Māori scientists, Harris has had to expend a lot of energy trying to educate people on mātauranga Māori and why it is a valid system of knowledge, as well as on how to better integrate mātauranga Māori with traditional Western science.
“What I’ve found to be the hardest thing to deal with is having to always justify our knowledge system. It’s exhausting.”
In order to change the way many New Zealanders view mātauranga Māori and other indigenous systems of knowledge, Harris says it’s important to attract, nurture, and retain indigenous scientists at all levels of society – from policymakers through to university lecturers. Programmes like DiscoveryCamp help to open the student’s minds up to the endless possibilities in front of them.
“We’ve been talking for a number of years about how there’s not enough Māori or Pacific lecturers. There needs to be investment from organisations and a true commitment. This means financial investment but also support for the people they hire. Also a very important thing is knowing how to do the processes correctly in getting people in and looking after them once they’re there,” Harris says.
“DiscoveryCamp is about giving the students the opportunity to learn our knowledge and other knowledge and it’s empowering for them. There is great potential in programmes like these to bring dual knowledge systems together that can contribute to solidifying these students’ identity and their place in the world. If someone is teaching you about your knowledge and culture and they see value in it, then you’ll feel that value too.”
For 18-year-old Richter, who attended DiscoveryCamp in January alongside Taylor, the experience reaffirmed her passion for science and showcased positive role models that she could look up to, people who were already working in the sector. Richter was able to learn more about the field she was interested in and even had a chance to consider her options for specialisation.
“Going to the camp really solidified that I want to go into the medical field but it also made me really interested specifically in medical imaging research. It gave me the confidence to know that I can do it. Seeing the women in science, especially in nanotech, showed me that anything is possible.”
Applications for DiscoveryCamp 2022 are currently open and will close on September 10, 2021. You can find out more information about the all-expenses-paid camp and an application form here.