Engaging Excellent Aboriginal Students in Science: An Innovation in Culturally-Inclusive Schooling

Article excerpt

A summer school in Science and Technology was held in January 2008 for nineteen Indigenous students commencing year 11 who were identified as having high academic potential in science and mathematics. Known as the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS) the summer school was held at the Australian Science and Mathematics School, Flinders University, Adelaide South Australia. Selected on merit, the Indigenous students came from around the nation to participate in the ten-day innovative program. Student engagement and involvement with the concepts and conduct of science was high and the activity intense. Learning was deep and its impact on students' was profound. This paper reports on the nature of learning and teaching of science to Indigenous students at this school and seeks to answer the question 'What was so innovative about the program that its impact was not merely successful but also profound ?'.

Introduction

For many students, ASSETS is life-changing. One student wrote:

When I came to ASSETS I was being recognised for being Aboriginal--it was something to be proud of. ASSETS provided me with role models to look up to, respect and follow. It boosted my self esteem and confidence ... being accepted into ASSETS. ... I can still picture the look on Dad's face. ... It was the first time my Mum and Dad had ever verbalised how proud they were of me.

Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS)

ETS began as an initiative of the Faculty of Aboriginal and Islander Studies at the University of South Australia and operated for almost 10 years up until 2000. Through the activities of the South Australian hub of the national program for Science ICT, Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR-SA) it was then reinitiated in 2007-2008.

In describing the original conception of the ASSETS program, Barnes (1993) explained that gifted Aboriginal students were always under-represented in mainstream science and technology summer schools. This gap had led in part to a disproportionately small number of Aboriginal people in science, mathematics and technology-related professions. ASSETS therefore sought to address this gap by offering Indigenous students a challenging, well-supported experience of experimental and discovery projects.

In this program Aboriginal students with academic promise were to be recruited from around Australia. Students from all secondary schools (government and non-government; city, regional, rural and remote) were eligible to attend. The students were expected to have an aptitude and interest in science, ICT and mathematics and be moving into Year 11 programs with significant emphasis in these areas. The earlier ASSETS ten-day program was to be:

   A balance of academic curriculum,
   excursions, cultural and social activities,
   and recreation. This holistic approach
   ensures that participants not only
   have the opportunity to improve their
   academic skills but are able to visit
   places of scientific and technological
   interest, meet interesting people, practice
   [sic] social skills, display pride in their
   Aboriginal cultural heritage and relax with
   their Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal fellow
   Australians (Steen, 1996).

Reporting on past ASSETS programs Clark and Merrotsy (2008) identified outcomes for students that could be categorised as:

* an unforgettable enriching experience

* a positive life orientation

* an affirmation of skills and talents

* a building of confidence and academic self efficacy

* an inspiration from the successes of others

* the development of new skills

* the acceptance by an Aboriginal peer group of academic skills and abilities as having

* an impact on career choice.

ASSETS graduates have selected study in a myriad of fields such as music, psychology, design, health care, apprenticeships, the Navy and architecture. …