How to embed Indigenous knowledge and STEM into programs

IEU member and Evans Head Educational Leader Cath Gillespie has contributed a chapter to a new book, Educator Yarns. She tells us about it here.

Educator Yarns is a collection of stories collated by Aboriginal Early Childhood Consultant and Director of Koori Curriculum Jessica Staines.

Jess works tirelessly for the early childhood sector, enabling educators and teachers to feel confident embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives into their programs.

I became involved in the project after my colleague, Bandjalang Custodian and Language holder Kirby Barker, and I were asked to present at the 2020 Aboriginal STEM summit – an online summit that captured how early childhood educators and services were embedding Indigenous knowledge and STEM into their programs.

Evans Head Community Preschool, where I have been an Educator, Teacher and Educational leader for almost 14 years, is located in the sleepy coastal village of Evans Head in the northern rivers of NSW.

Our service has been caring for and educating children in our community for almost 50 years, and we have a sister service in the neighbouring village of Woodburn.

It is now, more than ever, we need to listen to the wisdom of the traditional owners of our countries to heal the land and waterways.

You may be familiar with our community as we have been devastated by the recent flood events of the northern rivers of NSW, our preschool being flooded for the second time in five years.

In 2019 and 2020 our community was again at the mercy of mother nature as terrible bushfires saw many of our families’ and colleagues’ homes, properties and livelihoods lost.

Now, more than ever, we need to listen to the wisdom of the traditional owners of our countries to heal the land and waterways. As educators, we believe we can make a difference to the next generation to become advocates for sustainability and climate change.

Part of our preschool’s philosophy states, “Children have the right to inherit a world that is sustainable and to experience awe and wonder in that world. A connection with nature and the rhythms of our seasons, the feel of grass underfoot, the sun on our face and breathing fresh air are essential for everyone’s development and wellbeing, as well as for the future of our planet. Through action and critical reflection, we collaborate to make our world a better place.”

It is with this in mind we have chosen to embed the works of Dr Claire Warden’s Nature Pedagogy and Ann Pelo’s work on a Pedagogy for the Ecology.

We wish for children to develop an ecological identity, as they will be the caretakers of this planet. They will need to be creative and innovative thinkers to solve problems. We wish for them to love nature, not to ‘other’ it, but to be part of it.

We wish this for future generations to come, to be custodians of the land and to advocate for it.

Pelo says, “This is what I want for children: a sensual, emotional, and conscious connection to place; the sure, sweet knowledge of earth, air, sky. As a teacher, I want to foster in children an ecological identity, one that shapes them as surely as their cultural and social identities. I believe that this ecological identity, born in a particular place, opens children to a broader connection with the earth; love for a specific place makes possible love for other places. An ecological identity allows us to experience the earth as our home ground and leaves us determined to live in an honourable relationship with our planet”.

With this in mind, we developed a nature classroom in a stunning bush setting on the grounds of our local K-12 school.

We aspire to reconciliation and have worked hard to develop relationships we have with Elders and the Minyumai Rangers. These relationships add an authentic layer of Indigenous knowledge to the program.

We acknowledge that Aboriginal people were the first scientists, the first to use technology, the first engineers and the first mathematicians.

It became apparent quite quickly that this space and learning encompassed the four pillars of STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. We didn’t plan STEM experiences there; we didn’t need to; it was already there in every part of learning, every experience. Dr Claire Warden says, “Nature is at the root of all science”. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement.

Taking from what we were observing beyond the preschool fence, we used the resources and lessons of our custodians to redefine how bush tucker is used within our service back inside the fence. We use bush tucker as a tool to teach from, it is all STEM, or STEIM, with Indigenous knowledges being the linchpin.

We are guided by the Bandjalang seasons calendar developed by the Minyumai Rangers to expand our knowledge of the interconnection of people, plants, animals and sky. This calendar is a tool we use to teach children, families and educators, to look deeper, to understand.

We have foraged in our local park for Lilli Pilli, paperbark, flowers and plants to weave and use in our creative arts. We studied the birds, bees and butterflies which visited our space, making journals and logging them using apps such as the Great Aussie Bird Count.

Macadamia nuts are a traditional food endemic to our area. One particular year, one of our families, who are macadamia farmers, gave us a huge bucket of nuts. We spent many weeks finding the best technology to crack their hard shells.

We made fire, cooking eggs in paperbark, as the rangers and Aunty Simone showed us. Kirby would share her stories with the children, “My pop used to eat ginibi eggs –swan eggs cooked like this – wrapped in wet paper bark to steam over the fire. Ginibi eggs were gathered in June, one egg per nest was allowed to be taken, this was done using a stick, so not to leave any human scent behind”.

Australian plants were also used as a provocation to talk to the children gently and respectfully about Aboriginal histories, such as Sorry Day. We planted an Australian hibiscus, Alyogyne Heugelii, on Sorry Day.

This plant is the symbol for the Stolen Generations as they too are scattered throughout the country, and it also represents resilience. Before planting we ensured the space was appropriate for the plant, what soil it needed, where to position it where the sun was. We told the children that it needed extra care, and it was our role together to remember to care for the shrub.

One of our educators’ expertise lies in her ability to develop intentional teaching around sensory experiences. She brought some amazing smelling lemon myrtle leaves, which the children proceeded to chop up with scissors, releasing the beautiful aroma. We steeped the leaves in boiling water and then cooled them in the freezer to make a delicious lemon myrtle cordial. We developed a new teatime ritual using lemon myrtle and lemon tea. After rest time each day, we would come together to share a cup of tea. As it is the beginning of the new preschool year, this ritual helped us get to know each other a little better as we yarn and sip our tea.

These are only some examples of how we embed Indigenous knowledges and the principles of STEIM into our curriculum.

It is a privilege to be associated with and recognised by our peers, and to have a small sample of our work published. Often the work we do is dismissed as ‘play’. In our setting, we advocate for play as we know this is where the magic of teaching and learning occurs.