Leading academics are rethinking their approach to the basic educational opportunities offered to indigenous students following the release of some alarming new statistics.

Current research shows that only 29 per cent of Indigenous students complete Year 12 compared to 65 per cent for the broader Australian community, according to 2005 ABS figures. But even more disconcerting are the new figures, which show that, of the over 9000 university science graduates in 2005, only 25 were indigenous.

And the figures are worse in the case of science and engineering, according to Dr Ragbir Bhathal from the School of Engineering at the University of Western Sydney (UWS). In order to address this problem Dr Bhathal and his colleagues are running a series of special astronomy projects for Indigenous students at UWS.

‘The aim of the project is to improve the scientific literacy of Indigenous students through out-of-school astronomy activities,’ Dr Bhathal says. ‘Scientific literacy does not just imply scientific knowledge but also attitudes and procedures of multidisciplinary thinking.

‘It also implies the ability of using the scientific way of thinking in daily life, thus adding both social and scientific cultural capital to one’s life and the community.’

A group of Indigenous students from Windsor High School in Sydney were among the first to attend the hands-on astronomy classes at the University’s Observatory at the Werrington North campus. One of the highlights for the students was viewing the night sky through the observatory’s computerised telescopes.

‘The students are not only learning about the latest advances in astronomy but they are also learning about 40 000 years of Aboriginal astronomy – an astronomical tradition they can be proud of’, Dr Bhathal says. ‘Some of the activities involve making a simple telescope of the type that the great physicist and astronomer Galileo used to usher in the scientific revolution in the 16th century and experimenting with impact craters and seeing how galaxies are rushing away from us in an expanding universe.’

Dr Bhathal says by participating in this program, it is hoped that the students will be encouraged to consider careers in science and engineering and blaze the trail for other Indigenous students to follow.
The first classes began in August and the program will run until December 2007 and include four sessions, one with parent involvement.

The program will be extended to other indigenous students in the western suburbs of Sydney over the next few years. This event is sponsored by the University of Western Sydney, under its university engagement program with the community. It also has the support of the NSW Department of Education (Western Sydney region).

Contact Dr Ragbir Bhathal tel (02) 4736 0834.