The science camp breaking down the barriers for Māori and Pasifika students » The MacDiarmid Institute
The science camp breaking down the barriers for Māori and Pasifika students

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The science camp breaking down the barriers for Māori and Pasifika students

13 September, 2022

This article was first published in The Spinoff.

Diversity in academia is essential to expanding our knowledge systems and getting better outcomes for communities. Hands-on science programme DiscoveryCamp is helping expose more young people to the possibilities of science.

Raukura Kahukiwa (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāpuhi, Tainui) is one of those people who knows exactly how she wants her career to play out. When she leaves Rotorua Girls High School at the end of this year she’s going to enter the first year health science programme at the University of Otago. She then hopes to enter the medical school the following year, and ultimately specialise in paediatrics. But in the short term she’s just excited to cover a wide variety of scientific topics in her first year at university. She’s always been drawn to the way science helps explain how our world functions and interacts. “Science is so multifaceted and intriguing. I love dissecting and learning about how things work, which is essentially what science is all about,” she says. 

But as tangata Māori, Kahukiwa’s path into academia and especially science has traditionally been obscured with systemic barriers. Māori and Pacific academics make up less than 5% and 2% respectively across New Zealand’s universities. New research found Māori and Pasifika postgraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) experienced racism, tokenism, isolation and exploitation. 

DiscoveryCamp visit to MPI group with certificates

Raukura Kahukiwa (back row, second from left) with her Discovery Camp cohort

However, programmes designed to create safe spaces to guide Māori and Pasifika students into science and academia and make sure they succeed when they get there are having a real impact on young people like Kahukiwa as they contemplate their future. When asked if she encountered barriers to pursuing science because she was Māori, she explained her experience had in fact been the opposite.   

“I frequently attended the Matakokiri Science Camps run by Ngāti Whakaue which were set up to encourage Maori tamariki to pursue STEM in the future. In addition to this, I was also one of the first students to attend Te Rangihakahaka (also under Ngāti Whakaue), which was practically an extension of the science camps. I have always felt supported in my pursuit of a career in science,” she says. 

This year she attended the MacDiarmid Institue’s DiscoveryCamp. The annual programme provides a place for Māori and Pasifika high school students to do real research under the guidance of the country’s leading scientists. The four day residential lab experience helped Kahukiwa appreciate the opportunities that exist for her future. 

“Having the opportunity to speak to the PhD students, lecturers, and academics who essentially are the top in their fields and actually see the cutting edge work they’re doing was definitely the most important part of the experience to me. It altered my views on possibly pursuing higher education such as a masters or PhD which would have otherwise seemed unfeasible,” she says.

Applications for DiscoveryCamp 2023 for current year 12 and 13 Māori and Pacific Island students are open now. Students on the camp complete hands-on investigations into topics like electron microscopy, laser physics and nano-electronics. The camp is designed to inspire Māori and Pasifika secondary students to continue in science, particularly physical sciences. It wants to showcase the role they could have in helping humanity’s future on our planet through studying materials science. 

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Awhi Marshall (back row, centre) with their cohort of Discovery Camp students

While Awhi Marshall (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Mahuta, Nga Muri Kaitaua) is not exactly sure where they want to take their career, they know their future is a career in engineering and science, and will include some post-grad research. In their final year at Auckland’s Northcote College, Marshall is fascinated by the role of science in the biggest issues our world faces. 

“I am excited for the future of humanity, and the role science has to play. We need science for fighting climate change, ensuring the global food supply, and protecting our environment. If I can be a part of that future, and I can help generations to come, then I’m happy,” they say.  

A 2022 DiscoveryCamp attendee, Marshall made close connections with the other campers and was inspired by how much fun real life research was in practice. The experience helped reveal what their future in science could look like. 

“Being able to talk to students currently engaging in world-leading post-graduate study really opened the door in my mind to that path for me. It seems impossible to undergo any major study, especially post-grad, with the current state of student financial support, but they made us feel that it was possible, and worth it,” Marshall says. 

Marshall believes DiscoveryCamp’s focus on creating a path for Māori and Pasifika students is an essential kaupapa to help the sciences expand their own appreciation, understanding and engagement of diverse cultures and knowledge systems. And they see this is a huge opportunity to bring new perspectives to the most important challenges facing the world right now. 

“Having more Māori in science allows greater and wider world views than those that usually dominate scientific research and study. Incorporating te ao Māori, and Indigenous cultures and practices worldwide, is key to scientific progress and solving the issues that face humanity as we move forward,” Marshall says.  

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The DiscoveryCamp 2018 attendees

But to completely break down the barriers to Māori and Pasifika entering science fields will require deep systemic change, says new MacDiarmid Institute Associate Investigator Dr Taniela Lolohea. Despite recent progress and programmes like DiscoveryCamp, he remains concerned that universities are saying all the right things about diversity but aren’t making the changes required to allow Māori and Pasifika students to succeed and thrive in those spaces. 

“Often the organisations are saying all the right things in their Terms of Agreement documents, but whether it’s fruitful or just words is hard to say. It looks like movement but feels like words till things happen.”

Lolohea has been involved in DiscoveryCamp as a mentor for the past six years. He sees it as an essential opportunity to expose young people who are passionate about science to the realities of university but also introducing them to people who have come into that space and succeeded. 

“It’s about building their understanding of what university life is like. For a lot of people university is a foreign thing and so a lot of them don’t actually experience it till they actually get on campus,” he says. “And even then, when it’s your first time experiencing it, you don’t get a lot of interaction time with academics or PhD students. And so it’s, it’s allowing that opportunity for them to explore the university on a different and more interactive level, than I think they could ever get even in their first year.”

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A group of students on a Discovery Camp journey, with Dr Taniela Lolohea (back row, far right)

When Lolohea was a student at university he watched as the contingent of around 50 other Māori and Pasifika students dwindled to just a few by the end of his third year. And from his honours year into his PhD and post doctoral study he was the only one. Now a lecturer in chemistry at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Lolohea never dreamed of working at a university because he just didn’t think it was possible for someone like him. 

“When I was coming through, I never thought I’d be like an academic at all, because I’d never seen a Maori or Pasifika academic when I was in chemistry and science. And so I’ve never thought it was a thing,” he says. 

That experience has motivated Lolohea to work with Māori and Pasifika science students to show them that there is a fertile pathway into the field. 

“I think it’s important to have representation, particularly in academia, because it’s hard to be what you cannot see yourself. I think the main thing is to be able to see yourself in an environment and to see role models that you can look towards,” he says. ”I take my position quite seriously because I know there are other Māori and Pacific people looking to me, and they’re kind of thinking, ‘if he could do it, then then why can’t I.’” 

And by guiding more Māori and Pasifika into science, Lolohea sees the opportunity to diversify the way we understand science and the knowledge and traditions that inform it. With that diversity comes knowledge of different communities and allows research to have access that might otherwise be unavailable and that can equate to real impact.   

“Diversity matters because of diversity of thought, diversity of research, but also the diversity of the researchers. A lot of the time, it does take a Māori person or Pacific person to be that bridging person between a university and the community,” he says.  

“Trying to draw students into those kinds of research environments is important. A lot of them are interested in their own history and where they come from and how they can actually help their own people.”