Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.
University tauira (students) are inspiring rangatahi (youth) in schools across Aotearoa through exploring Māori and Pacific science and technology with them.
Undergraduates and postgraduates at Victoria University of Wellington have been empowering their younger peers in Tūhono i te Ao (Connecting Worlds) – a big expo for school students to explore science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) through Māori and Pasifika lenses.
The expo is made up of many activity stations covering a vast range of STEM-related topics – including star navigation, mussel biology, drone technology, tapa cloth printing, building a wharenui, and demonstrations using liquid nitrogen.
Most of the stations are run by members of Āwhina or Pasifika Student Success – support rōpu (groups) for Māori and Pasifika tauira at Victoria University – who are studying STEM subjects.
“I want to show Māori and Pasifika kids that science is not boring but can be really fun and interesting – and that although it can be hard, it is doable,” says Zoe So’otaga who is studying towards a degree in building science.
“I think the fact that we are like older brothers and sisters – not too old – is also really good for helping them see that it’s something that they can do and that it’s not far out of reach.”
Architecture student Savanah Hunt adds, “I love how their eyes light up in that moment when they ‘get’ something, and also how they can see that science can be for everyone – including them.”
In Taitā, Lower Hutt, the expo took place at the Walter Nash stadium, where visiting schools from across the Wellington region rotated around all of the stations in small groups. With so many schools attending, each group only had about 15 minutes to visit each station before moving on to the next - a challenge that was executed with military precision.
A highlight for 11-year-old Andre from Wainuiomata Intermediate School was the augmented reality sandbox, which had an image projected onto the sand that showed mountains where the sand was piled high and water where there were troughs.
“That was my favourite because I liked how the image responded to how you moved the sand around,” he says.
Another popular choice with the students was the virtual reality (VR) station, in which they could don headsets to immerse themselves in a digital world.
“It’s cool how you can go to other places but still stay in the same place,” says Andrew, 12, from Wainuiomata Intermediate.
“You can see how the VR games are made – it was a really cool experience,” adds Hineora, 12, from Te Ara Whānui Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngā Kohanga Reo o Te Awa Kairangi. “I also liked the health station a lot, because I liked seeing how much sugar was in the drinks and how to keep my body healthy.”
Even the teachers are astonished by how much their students engage with the activities, says Āwhina director Marie Cocker.
“We had one boy take part who was known by teachers for being disruptive in class, and they told me that they couldn’t believe their eyes at how much he changed when getting hands-on. He became quiet, focused, and completely immersed in what he was doing.”
Āwhina coordinator Dominic Trewavas says that he also really enjoys seeing the students leave with a new sense of clarity, confidence and focus.
“Often the Year 7 and 8 students come in and some don’t know what they want to do as a career in the future, but after this they say ‘I want to be a geologist’ or ‘I want to learn more about the stars’. It’s just so cool to see how inspired they get from this.”
Tūhono it te Ao was run by Victoria University of Wellington in partnership with the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART) and supported by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.