Monthly Archives: July 2015

Theory / and / Action

The experience of working with the Sandon Point community happened in 2013 – at the very beginning of this project. First year Engineering at Wollongong University included an opportunity for students to engage with the Engineering Without Borders (EWB)  mChallenge – a project-based approach to learning about design, teamwork and communication through real, inspiring, sustainable cross-cultural development projects (

It was decided to explore the possibility of applying that project approach to a local context, and Sandon Point was an obvious choice. However, in contrast with EWB it was possible for students to visit the actual site, which raised a number of issues about the propriety of doing so. In resolving how to address each of these issues the concept of the 5Rights© began to emerge as a coherent set of guiding principles. Their existence as a set of operating standards preceded the idea of the Sandon Point project, however applying them in this context highlighted how they simultaneously provide guidance and help to identify constraints operating in such contexts. Using them in this context set in train the evolution of this project, as well as the overall model which emerged from subsequent research, analysis and further applications of their way of guiding interactions and shaping connectedness.

The term ‘Abductive’ may not yet be as familiar as ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ in describing types of research but is the one most applicable to how this particular research has been evolving. In effect our work emerged from the theories embedded in the combined practice of those involved, rather than from application of theoretical concepts to those practices.

There is nothing so theoretical as good practice, nor so practical as a good theory, and these two inter-related concepts have been the guiding forces shaping the progress of our work.

As we move into the next phase there is opportunity for  co – creating theory and practice through engaging students and staff in the journey of re-discovering Aboriginal Engineering achievements, in the manner of the recent posting at

Which explores some of the science of Aboriginal civilisation, in much the same way we are re-discovering the engineering.

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part Three)

Engaging with Aboriginal Perspectives using 5Rights©

The 5Rights© are, collectively, a guide to our recommended approach to integrating Aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. These are responsibilities – not entitlements – and their origins are anchored in that Knowledge Gap outlined in the first of this series of entries. When people on each side of the knowledge gap are ignorant of the others’ body of knowledge, and do not appreciate its underlying values and principles, at least three possible avenues are available for action. The most damaging of these is in play when knowledge is assumed to be absent from one side. Conversely a ‘deficit model’ assumes the superiority of one set of knowledge, and operates ‘as if’ problems are solved by use of its ‘more progressive’ solutions to relevant contexts.

The 5Rights© recognise that different knowledges are involved, guides a process for acquiring the requisite knowledge to ensure that planned activity is based on adequate awareness, and even-handed acceptance of, the whole of the context. At the beginning of any collaborative process there is agreement that no one has ‘more’ – or ‘better’ – knowledge of how to define a ‘good outcome’, and each has sufficient curiosity about what everyone else brings to the setting.

Like the elements of an Aboriginal perspective these five factors must be initially considered in the sequence presented below. And, just like those other elements, they are closely interconnected, such that any one may prove to be a good starting point for preliminary exploration, while this sequence represents the order in which to proceed –

  • Right People
  • Right Place
  • Right Language
  • Right Time
  • Right Way

Each of these is described in more detail in the Blog entry titled Describing the Five Rights, (June 10th) and you are invited to explore their meanings by reading about them there.

The 5Rights(C) in Action

The case study below describes a time when all five rights aligned to create a most successful learning experience for a large group of engineering students, while simultaneously providing a wealth of options for the local community’s consideration and demonstrated that an adequate understanding of how to address the knowledge gap benefited all those involved.

Right People

In this project the people involved were SPATE members, local government staff, academic staff and university students. The most vital ‘right people’ were the SPATE members involved, a fact which was highlighted 12 months later, when the absence of those same people meant the project could not be developed further. (see the note on Right Time)

Right Place

Sandon Point is near the university campus and readily accessible. There is quite a lot of readily accessible information about SPATE and the history of its activities. There was a strong need to address the various engineering related topics for the students to exercise their creativity. The students met SPATE representatives on site, enabling them to get a deeply personal sense of what is involved in establishing and maintaining such a place.

Right Language

The situation at SPATE was discussed with the people on site, using their own words to identify their priorities and needs. Similarly discussions with the local government staff were conducted in terms of their perceptions and priorities. While the academic staff involved were the one most directly involved, the students were kept well advised.

Right Time

2013 was a moment in time when everything was aligned for such a project, as noted in ‘Right People’. And this fact emphasises the interconnectedness of all five Rights. By 2014 the series of changes that had occurred meant that Sandon Point could not be revisited in the same way.

Right Way

This is perhaps the most complex factor and is both first and last in terms of sequencing. As with so much else in life there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to get things done. Approaching a project like this while using an entirely Western worldview would have failed, because that kind of framework seldom allows scope for attending to philosophical and social beliefs  prior to taking action. Taking time to visit and sit with the Embassy people, providing detailed information about appropriate ways to treat the land. Setting technical criteria to replicate local traditions ensured that students experienced the ‘right way’ of approaching such a context, and their feedback reflected enhanced awareness of what it means to be Indigenous.

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part Two)

All human cultures have unique features, as well as characteristics shared with all other humans. Being human involves a range of physical factors including managing family and group life, engagement in social and individual activities like work and play, and making sustained efforts to provide for basic health and safety needs. How all these elements are enfolded into particular cultures is uniquely shaped by intangible factors called – variously – beliefs, values systems or philosophies. These intangibles are powerfully strong in shaping actions and reactions, yet also very subtle and therefore hard to discern either from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ their sphere of influence. Those for whom a particular set of beliefs and values are the ‘norm’ find it hard to consider that anything else could be viable, while those for whom it is unfamiliar and even ‘strange’ often have a highly judgmental view of what is unfamiliar, based on their comfort with what they know.

Given this very human condition it is not so surprising that Aboriginal culture and society was not well regarded by Europeans arriving on Australian shores from the 18th century. These new arrivals were used to living in large well-built structures, traveling on surfaced roads using wheeled vehicles, and residing ‘permanently’ in one location while having the capacity to move between cities and smaller towns. They expected to own property including land and houses, and did not understand that they were meeting a culture that had little time, or need, for material possessions and certainly did not ever consider that any one might ‘own’ the land.

Aboriginal culture as it had developed within Australia’s shorelines from around 40,000 thousand years ago, had taken a very different path from that which had evolved in Europe. Its philosophical underpinnings created a different set of actions in regard to land and property and relationships with land and each other.

In Europe, as on other continents, some beliefs are held in common across a wide span of land, while each national grouping, within that space, has its own highly specific characteristics. It was no different on the Australian continent. Aboriginal nations had delineated lands whose boundaries were more or less clearly understood by all involved. Similarly their social and cultural beliefs shared a large body of common knowledge, while there were also highly specific and distinct sets of localised knowledge and beliefs. This fact is not well understood, even in the 21st century, and there continues to be a widespread tendency to assume a complete absence of variation among Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

Localising this Aboriginal Perspective

Accepting that ‘difference’ does not mean ‘less than’ or ‘more than’ requires acknowledging the existence of this diversity of beliefs and cultures. It also means understanding enough about the underpinning differences. Such ‘understanding’ is not expected to extend to unquestioning adoption of specific beliefs and values, however it is essential for sustaining respectful attention to their implications for achieving effective communication.

To achieve this within the constraints of the Engineering Across Cultures project we have drawn on a specific set of beliefs based in the Illawarra region of Australia. While anchored in the wider traditions of Aboriginal Australia, and grounded in the proposition that applications of our model, outside this region, uses of this perspective must be calibrated with perspectives of the region where it is to be used. As far as possible we have formulated this perspective to align with the broader framework of Aboriginal beliefs as we understand them. However it is vital for users of the model to establish for themselves the local perspectives of the region where they will be working.

An Aboriginal Perspective

The five items are listed in this order to indicate their cumulative impact on the behaviours and relationships among Aboriginal people. While they are presented in sequence here, even a superficial inspection will show that they are in fact a cycle wherein each one leads to the next, and back to the beginning. Connectedness leads back to country and country points in the direction of inter-connectedness. From this perspective there are no singularities.

  • Country – refers to ones connection to place. The intimate relationship one has with the surroundings, one’s nature.
  • Kinship – one’s connection to people (family, kin, people of significance). There are roles and responsibilities/obligations that evolve with these relationships, over time shaping how they bind you to ‘your’ place.
  • Culture – there is a core understanding that culture is a lived day-to-day expression of who had how to be. This culture is a reflection of the history (story) experienced within a place (country) and is particular and specific to that place and people.
  • Journey – one’s lived experiences (these can be shared, and regularly are). They are one’s lived and experienced connections over time to place, people and day-to-day happenings.
  • Connectedness – All things are inter-connected! There are inter-relationships among all things, and the harmonisation of concepts creates one’s true sense of belongingness

Keeping these five elements in mind means that non-Aboriginal parties involved in negotiations, shared learning experiences or other collaborative activities can become more adept at appreciating how Aboriginal participants engage with both people and the land.