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Can apps boost environmental care?

Rangatahi (youth) from Te Kūiti and Huntly are helping Māori scientists develop a new app that will support young people across Aotearoa in caring for their taiao (environment).

Rob talking about rongoā to the tauira

Tauira (students) from Te Wharekura o Maniapoto and Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga have been taking a closer look at life in the ngahere (forest), awa (lakes/rivers), repo (wetlands) and moana (sea) to shape the creation of a new mobile app.

The project, called He Tohu o te Wā (‘Signs of our times’), follows on from last year’s Tūhonohono project, in which tauira explored how science can be part of the toolkit that kaitiaki (environmental guardians) can use with mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) to protect the environment.

Kairangahau (Māori researchers) Kiri Reihana and Yvonne Taura at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research are leading the project and app creation. The app is unique in that it will equip rangatahi to be kaitiaki by building their knowledge of ecology – the relationships between living things and their environment.

Looking at moana life

Earlier this year Yvonne and Kiri ran a series of wānanga (knowledge sharing sessions) with kaitiaki, tauira and kaiako (teachers) with both wharekura (schools), to understand what rangatahi will need from the app.

“Our three-day wānanga at Otawhiwhi Marae [in Tauranga] was a great opportunity to show the tauira of Te Wharekura o Maniapoto, that connecting with the environment can be a fun learning experience,” Yvonne says.

“For Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga, we took the tauira into the restored repo at the back of their kura, which is a living classroom of pūtaiao, and it was such a pleasure to reveal to them the native plants and animals living in their own backyard.”

Tauira at the repo behind their kura

As part of the wānanga in Tauranga, the group met with experts from Manaaki Te Awanui who shared their passion for the moana.

“We learnt about fishing, diving, and how to navigate with the sun, moon and stars,” says Teherenga, 13.

Takarei, 11, adds, “I really liked going fishing. We caught seven kahawai.”

Tauira on a boatHolding a fish

Afterwards, the group went into the ngahere to learn about plants and how they were used in rongoā (traditional medicine) from local expert Rob (Pā Ropata) McGowan at Ngā Whenua Rāhui.

“My favourite plants are the ones that can be used as natural toothbrushes and toilet paper because they’re still used by people now, not only in the past,” says Aleisha, 11.

Fourteen-year-old Te Rito adds, “I want to be a marine biologist as I've always loved the water, ever since I was a baby. But I’ve enjoyed learning about the ngahere just as much as the moana because they're both kind of the same; we have a relationship with both of them and they're both important to keep healthy.”

Chewing a plant

Having several experts in mātauranga also made the wānanga more relevant for the rangatahi: “It’s so important for them to meet and learn from Māori marine biologists and botanists,” Yvonne says.

“Taking tauira out of the classroom and into these natural spaces, to teach them from a Te Ao Māori perspective, has got be a successful formula for an empowering learning experience.”

Mauri app already developed for KairangahauThe tauira were not the only ones learning, as it was during the wānanga that Kiri realised that the original app idea wasn't right.

She had intended to create an app for monitoring the mauri (vital essence) of natural environments, but it soon came to light that the tauira needed to learn core knowledge about New Zealand’s ecology.

“I had to go back to the drawing board for the app, as some of the students didn’t know what mauri was, or what the Māori names were for native plants and animals,” Kiri explains.

The focus of the app actually needed to be on helping rangatahi grow their ecological knowledge to support kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and build a strong foundation for monitoring mauri further down the road. But how can such an app be fun as well as informative?

Kiri knew the answer lay in games: “I watched a few of the students play games on their phones, where they had to get something right in order to progress to the next level. The games were so simple, yet the kids played them over and over.”

Wānanga at the marae

Kiri then tested this approach by creating an environmental knowledge quiz called Basic NZ Ecology on Kahoot! - a website and app that many educators use as an effective way of gamifying learning.

“The rangatahi loved it and wanted to have a second and third go, which confirmed to me that I was on the right track,” she says.

Kiri is now working with Arthouse graphic designers to create a Te Ao Māori game that will encourage rangatahi to learn about and interact with their environment.

Once the app design has been finalised, Kiri and Yvonne will trial it with tauira at Te Wharekura o Maniapoto and Te Wharekura O Rakaumanga before releasing it nationally.

Maniapoto whānau outside the wharenui

Photos supplied by tauira/kaiako at Te Wharekura o Maniapoto and Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga.

Host and play the test game on Kahoot! (single players: use two devices/browser windows - one to host and the other to play, or you can compete in teams)

Read about Kiri Reihana's career journey

Read about Yvonne Taura's career journey

About the project

Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research logoHe Tohu o te Wā – Hangarau Pūtaiao is led by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research in partnership with Te Wharekura o Maniapoto, Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga, Manaaki Te Awanui and Ngā Whenua Rāhui. It is supported by the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge and the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

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Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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