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Unis need new angle for attracting Indigenous engineers

Rudi Maxwell -

The work of Aboriginal engineers has survived thousands of years but universities are missing out on attracting a new generation of Indigenous scientists, according to experts.

Brewarrina fish traps are one of the oldest known engineering feats in the world, a complex network of river stones arranged to form ponds and channels that catch fish as they swim the Barwon River on the outskirts of the north-west NSW town.

The University of Melbourne's Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology is pioneering a new approach, the Return to Country program, to spark interest in STEM pathways among Indigenous regional, rural and remote communities.

A group of the faculty's Indigenous staff and students are visiting schools and Indigenous communities in Bourke, Brewarrina, Goodooga and Enngonia as part of the program, including a visit to the fish traps.

Joe West, a Murawarri engineer from the Culgoa River region and a Fulbright Scholar in the School of Computing and Information Systems at Melbourne uni, said the fish traps, Baiame Ngunnu, had been a place for sharing resources and knowledge for thousands of years.

"This engineering structure has all the hallmarks that modern engineers strive for, including community-centric solutions; personal and task specific modifications, evolutionary and agile development and sustainable material pipelines," he told AAP.

"There is much to learn from these practices.

"As engineers we dream of creating something that can last for so long."

Dr West will deliver a return to country oration in Bourke on Wednesday evening.

"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," he said.

"Universities have an important role to play in enabling the spark of interest for young Indigenous students to pursue engineering."

Master in engineering student Tully Mahr, a Gundungurra woman, will also speak at the Bourke event, sharing her experiences as an intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where she was working on a project about how life on earth originated.

Only 0.5 per cent of the Indigenous population have engineering degrees, compared to 5.2 per cent of the non-Indigenous population.

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," he said.

"Despite a growing awareness and appreciation of Indigenous culture, the challenges have proven to be beyond the reach of goodwill.

"They point to continuing issues that enable entrance for the group who match the existing cohort and continued barriers for those who do not."

In his oration, Dr West will outline the initiatives he believes are necessary for attracting more interest from Indigenous students and enabling a successful transition to campus life and retention at university.

He said programs like the Victorian Indigenous Engineering Winter School offered by four universities to Year 10, 11 and 12 Indigenous students from across Australia, were a great example of introducing STEM to young people.

"Strategies are changing within many universities, through initiatives such as alternative access pathways, scholarships and other incentives," Dr West said.

"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."

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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