Teachers have been shown to underestimate Māori children’s academic capabilities, which their achievements end up reflecting. But Pūhoro, a forward-thinking science academy, has now been set up to support Māori youth in reaching their true potential. Naomi Manu and Mana Vautier give us the lowdown.
One thing that people really don’t like to talk about is prejudice. But we all have it. We’re just not aware of it.
Researcher Carla Houkamau (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou) talked about this hidden prejudice, or ‘unconscious bias’, at the Māori Public Health Symposium in Wellington earlier this month:
“Most of us are consciously really positive towards other people, but unconsciously we make snap judgements that can have a big influence in how we do things.
“Unconscious biases do not equal bad people. We just need to learn to think slower to overcome them.”
So it is no surprise that schoolteachers have it too.
Several studies by education researcher Christine Rubie-Davies reveal that teachers have preconceived and unjustifiably low expectations of Māori students, leading these children to question and underestimate their own academic capabilities and potential.
In a paper published only a few months ago, Christine recommended setting up culturally-based learning programmes for improving teachers’ relationships with Māori students and to help them teach in ways that are culturally appropriate to Māori.
With perfect timing, a new science academy for Māori and Pasifika high school students has just been launched.
Science education the Māori way
Pūhoro is the brainchild of Naomi Manu (Rangitāne ki Wairarapa, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa), who runs it in the Manawatū and Bay of Plenty with her colleagues at Massey University.
The academy’s name was gifted by Darren Joseph and Hone Morris from Massey’s Te Putahi-a-Toi:
“Pūhoro is the whakairo pattern that features on the side of a waka,” Naomi says. “It represents acceleration.”
Pūhoro’s purpose is to take students out of the classroom and boost their interest and potential achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths (often shortened to ‘STEM’) in a way that incorporates Māori ways of thinking and knowing.
“I was inspired by the success of the health science academies operating in South Auckland and wanted to see if we could do something similar,” Naomi says. “After discussing the idea with Selwyn Katene, Massey’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of Māori and Pasifika, we agreed that the university could pilot a programme that could support a pipeline from secondary school to university, and eventually the STEM workforce.”
Naomi tells us that there is hardly any knowledge around Māori student engagement in scientific programmes so far, so it is critical that educators try and understand it better:
“The issues surrounding STEM engagement amongst Māori students are really complex – from low secondary school participation, attitudes and beliefs about STEM, and perceptions around its usefulness.
“There are many reasons why it’s important to understand and address these issues – including the potential of the Māori economy, the fact that we are now in post-treaty settlement phase, and looking to the future with advancements in science and innovation. Māori have the potential to be at the forefront of innovation, and we need a workforce of future innovators to realise this potential.”
A core part of the academy is reflected in its mantra: He waka eke noa (we’re all in this together). Just last month, Pūhoro had the first of its Waka Wars, where students had to work together on challenging tasks such as building a freestanding bridge, assembling a rover to carry a 5kg load, and building a safe with a trip wire.
The idea of having a safe, supportive space for Māori students to grow is not lost on the students themselves either, according to Naomi:
“We have had a really high level of interest amongst Māori students and the programme is actually oversubscribed. Instead of our target of about 60 students, we have almost a hundred.
“It’s been a challenge to access the funding we need to support them, though. We have some funding, which is brilliant, but we need a greater level of commitment over a longer period of time. Right now, we have support for one year at a time, which threatens our sustainability.”
Pūhoro also supports the students with extra tutoring, laboratory space for those who don’t have any, field trip opportunities, and mentoring.
Reaching for the stars
One mentor is Aerospace Engineer Mana Vautier (Te Arawa, Tuhourangi, Ngāti Kahungunu). He is also Pūhoro’s ambassador and his career at NASA in the US makes him a stellar role model to the students.
“Mana is not only smart, driven, ambitious and successful, but he’s a really good person,” Naomi says. “He is committed to Māori youth development and is extremely generous with his time, experiences and advice for these young people. He’s a real inspiration.”
Mana says that it was the support he had that encouraged him to aim for the stars – literally:
“I have been very fortunate to grow up in an environment where my potential was never diminished. Any dreams or goals I had were encouraged, and I was always taught to believe that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t achieve if I worked hard and set my mind to it.”
“It’s possible that my Māori heritage instilled some sort of inherent love of the night sky, but all I know is that as long as I can remember I have always looked up at the sky at night and had a strong desire to explore what’s beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.”
Mana was born in Auckland, and at four years old his family moved to Hong Kong. But he still stayed connected to his New Zealand roots.
“My parents were always sure to teach us about our background and heritage. With a Māori mother and a Pākehā father, I felt blessed to enjoy a strong affinity and connection to both cultures,” he says.
When Mana was thirteen he moved back to New Zealand for boarding school. Then in 2002 he went overseas again, but this time to the US to pursue a career exploring space:
“The US and Russia are the big players in space exploration, but I’m excited to see so many other players entering the game, including New Zealand organisations. I like to think that one day New Zealand will have it’s own space agency, and would love to be a part of it.”
Mana now works at NASA and Booz Allen Hamilton, where he helps commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing, prepare to safely and efficiently fly crew to the International Space Station. The job is complex and incorporates many different components, ranging from life support to power consumption.
“There are so many different subsystems needed to make the ISS fly, and my team are kind of like the conductor of an orchestra, coordinating all the different subsystems to work together in harmony.” he says.
Mana’s big dream, however, is to become an astronaut.
“My ultimate goal is that I simply want to fly in space,” he says. “As far as being the first Māori or Kiwi in space, I honestly don’t mind if I’m the first, 21st or 101st. The media sometimes promote a slightly different version that suggests I want to be the first Māori in space, which doesn’t quite convey my perspective!”
A hand up for the next generation
Even with his lofty ambitions, Mana still makes time to help kids – and not just in New Zealand.
In March, Mana went to Kenya with Engineers without Borders to help set up a sustainable water and power system for an orphan rescue centre in a small country village called Giika.
“We spent six full days installing several kilometres of piping to carry fresh water to the buildings and sewage away from them,” he recalls. “Later this year, we’re going back to finish off the biogas system, which takes human, animal and kitchen waste and converts it into energy for hot water, power and gas for cooking.
“The rescue centre now has 32 kids living there who had been living literally in rubbish dumps. Now the kids will have food, clothing, shelter, and an education. Many of these kids want to get a university degree one day – and now they’re finally able to take a step in that direction.”
When asked about how Māori kids can reach their potential, Mana’s thoughts echo Naomi’s – revealing a shared vision for Pūhoro and its students.
“STEM subjects are traditionally viewed as harder, more technical subjects – and I think many Māori students have an unfortunate misconception that they’re not good enough or smart enough to pursue those subjects,” he explains. “In saying that, I think we are definitely starting to see more and more Māori breaking that stereotype, which is great. Pūhoro also fosters a more whānau[family]-centric environment, which tends to be a more conducive learning style for Māori.”
“By addressing issues like self-belief and learning style, we can enable and empower more young Māori to get a clear vision of their true potential and how to reach it.”
Tēnā rawa atu kōrua, Naomi and Mana, for sharing your stories.
If you’re curious about your own unconscious biases, you can test yourself.