The ancient practices of stone toolmaking and painting with natural pigments are culturally significant to Australia’s First Nations Peoples. These practices are also sophisticated examples of material culture, where knowledges of geography, biology, chemistry and physical properties intersect.
Connecting Indigenous culture and science
Through our STEM Professionals in Schools program, we helped Indigenous students connect their culture with science. This year, 25 Indigenous students in Western Australia (WA) took a closer look at these examples on an excursion to the University of Western Australia’s ‘Sandpit’ Archaeological Experimental facility.
There they met Archaeologist and Heritage Specialist Sven Ouzman, postgraduate student Emily Grey, and advanced undergraduate students Amber Wesley and Armita Ghassemifar.
Sven presented a short lecture on Australian Archaeology in the Social Sciences ‘FishBowl’ Teaching Lab. He shared artefacts with the students from around WA, including stone tools dating up to 50,000 years old.
Students then created their own stone tools. This was an activity to demonstrate the importance of materials analysis, fracture planes, and force vectors. Sven explained they were not being taught how to make the tools, as that is already their heritage, but about the forces and knowledges required to do it.
“The students used over 100 kilograms of rock, and some did extra work with their stone tools. Some utilised pressure flaking instead of direct percussion to create their tool, as well as hafting them with natural and found materials to make composite tools,” Sven said.
“One student made a great flake and then hafted it with twine onto a stick to make an arrow or spear. I complimented him on it and when the students were boarding the bus to return to school, he gifted it to me. It has pride of place on my corkboard.”
Painting with natural pigments
The students also made paint with Emily, Amber and Armita. They looked at the underlying chemistry including mixing the correct ratios of pigment, binder, loader, and extender. And used their freshly made paint to create handprint stencils, paintings and marks on the walls of the Sandpit area. Most importantly, the paintings will remain there permanently, which Sven said is an honour.
“It was wonderful when one student painted a honey ant and explained its significance to her family. It was great two-way learning as we, the university staff, learned something new,” Sven said.
Authentic educational experience
Teacher Chris Lee said the Australian Curriculum includes learning materials for teachers about how stone tools exemplify a convergence between science and culture. But his students were most compelled by the access to a Heritage Specialist, and the approach to the learning activity.
“Experiential learning is such an important part of authentic education. Sven has been a thoroughly engaging partner, going above and beyond to cater to the needs of our unique and diverse group of learners,” Chris said.
“The students left with a greater appreciation of the work Sven and his team does. They understand the links that can be found between their own experiences and the wider scientific community.
“We will definitely look at opportunities to build upon this partnership, integrating it into our Year 9 and 10 curriculum in other subjects beyond science. There are opportunities to integrate components of Sven’s work into Mathematics, HASS, Art, English and Indigenous studies.”
Benefits for STEM professionals
Sven said the benefits for STEM professionals working with a teacher were many from his perspective too. These include opportunities to sharpen communication skills for new audiences, access extensive networks, and meet great people with great ideas. He feels a responsibility to get involved.
“It is part of ethical practice. A lot of archaeology is studying other peoples’ histories, typically funded by public money. So there has to be a series of give backs to wider society in the form of talks, excursions, developing sites, assisting teachers, and creating digital content,” Sven said.
“Partnering with a school, particularly with an Aboriginal education provider, allows us to establish a potential pathway for students to university education. As a result, it gives them a contact and institution that they can reach out to.
“It’s also a chance I have to make archaeology, a badly understood field, more widely known. I think what is important for all students to realise is that archaeology and our heritage is all around them, often quite literally under their feet.”
Sven and Chris are partnered through our STEM Professionals in Schools program. In 2022, this program is celebrating 15 years of building connections between STEM professionals and teachers all around Australia.