To educators, they’re among our brightest prospects for tackling the scientific challenges facing the nation in the decades to come.
They’re all high achievers at schools across the country. As Indigenous Australians, they come from a culture that has been using “science and technology and engineering to solve problems for thousands of years”.
But, according to coordinator Scott Philip, it’s also because these teenagers are “emotionally and socially brave”.
“They’ve nominated and supported themselves to get here, which is a big deal,” he said.
“Can you imagine back when you were 16 if someone said: ‘hey, do you want to leave your town and give up your school holidays to come possibly to a different town and meet people you hadn’t met before and do things that you’re unfamiliar with?’”
Around 30 Year 10 students are spending nine days at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle as part of the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSET).
The program aims to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to pursue pathways in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
For Tasmanian student Charlotte Cooke, it has also been about connecting with her Aboriginal heritage for the first time. She put her “heart and soul” into preparing for a fire pit dance on Tuesday.
“In our dance we have this moment where we’re basically blessing ourselves and the earth and connecting with it,” she said.
“Now we’re doing things like solar energy and water chemistry. We’re involving ourselves with the earth and doing cultural things with the earth and we’re learning to bond them together.”
The students found knowledge passed down through their culture through Dreamtime stories often pre-dated the scientific discoveries of white man.
“We have a story that the moon was a man and his tears were the water and he tries to pull them back at night,” Ms Cooke said. “Then science proved that the moon does pull the tides.”
Kaide Uhlmann, of Brisbane, learnt how to play the didgeridoo for the first time at the camp.
”Now I can go back to my tribe and present that to them too and maybe even play the didgeridoo for some of the fire pit dances,” he said. “The camp has been an extraordinary experience. All of us, we’re like a big family.”
The students spent Monday at the National Solar Energy Centre, designing – and then racing – their own solar-powered cars.
Teaonii Aitken, from the Torres Strait, agonized over what materials to use.
“It has no instructions so you have to be imaginative,” she said.
The University of Newcastle and CSIRO are partners in the program, which is funded by the BHP Billiton Foundation.
“STEM areas are all about problem solving … all about facing future challenges,” Mr Philip said.
“The more diverse thinking we have in that, the better solutions we’ll have for the future.”