Blue Wrens take Flight in Engineering Education

Posted by : Deanne Hanchant-Nichols May 29, 2022

Contact : Deanne.Hanchant-Nichols at Maps

Teaching engineering students how to work with Aboriginal Peoples and to consider Aboriginal ways of ‘Knowing and Being’ is more than just a one-off history and cultural awareness lecture. The competition for technically rich content has made finding the room for teaching Aboriginal content challenging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. However, there is a social and professional imperative for students to learn about how to work best with Aboriginal peoples and redress past wrongs. This is particularly the case in engineering where graduates will often work on Country to implement engineering solutions.

This story is about the inception, development and embedding of the Blue Wren vignettes into engineering curricula.

The aim of the Blue Wren vignettes is – first and foremost - to instil in engineers the importance of working with Aboriginal organisations and communities in a way which is culturally sensitive, productive and technically sound. Since 2017 the Blue Wren vignettes have been delivered to thousands of students across civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering programs at the University of South Australia (UniSA).

The concept for the Blue Wren ‘fix the footy oval’ vignettes was born on the rainiest day of 2016 when Aboriginal Employment and Development Consultant at UniSA, Deanne, met with Engineering educator, Andrea to look at ways in which the digital environment could become a delivery platform to facilitate cultural training using a story which would resonate with young, predominantly male, undergraduate students. Sport, specifically Aussie Rules Football was the context chosen. This was because ‘watching the footy’ is recognised as an Australian pastime which brings players, families, committee members and community together.

A fictitious ‘Blue Wren’ Sporting Association, an Aboriginal community group with plans to upgrade their oval and facilities was created as the narrative for the vignettes.

Deanne and Andrea, equipped with their umbrellas and sticky notes conceptualised the ‘young engineer’ James, who would be employed to renovate the sports facilities; and the Blue Wren Aboriginal Sporting Association committee who would work with James to develop the engineering brief while providing ‘lessons’ about cultural understanding and effective community consultation along the way.

The two colleagues were soon joined by others including Engineering Program Director, Liz, who would add to the story and ensure technical relevance and engineering pedagogy.

Then on the hottest day of the year, equipped with umbrellas (again) and run sheets, the four Blue Wren vignettes were filmed, the three colleagues Deanne, Andrea and Liz, all played cameo parts in a production with a modest budget with a high impact which would be delivered to thousands of STEM students across a five-year period. Deanne, Andrea and Liz would be joined by Jayne who would be central to the delivery of the resource. Of course, along with the authors, there were many other important tutors, professional staff and faculty who have contributed to the development and implementation of the Blue Wren.

The creation of the Blue Wren vignettes developed a community of practice involving Aboriginal Elders and community members; a senior civil engineer; an engineering student; cultural consultant; the Dean Learning and Teaching, Aboriginal teaching staff and many friends and colleagues to ensure cultural and pedagogical relevance.

The story we tell in this chapter describes the place of the Blue Wren resource in UniSA’s approach to teaching Aboriginal culture in curriculum; the way in which the vignettes link to curriculum and learning outcomes for both staff and students.

The authors would like to acknowledge Elders past, present and emerging.

The Blue Wren project was filmed on the lands of the Kaurna People of the Adelaide Plains, and Piccadilly, South Australia– traditional land of the Peramangk people of the Adelaide Hills.

Always was and always will be Aboriginal Land.

Extract from Chapter 12, Indigenous Engineering for an Enduring Culture, edited by Cat Kutay, Elyssebeth Leigh, Juliana Kaya Prpic and Lyndon Ormond-Parker. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Author: Deanne Hanchant-Nichols, Andrea Duff, Elizabeth Smith & Jayne Boase

Location: University of South Australia