In a demonstration of the power of STEM, an international robotics competition has brought a team of Indigenous primary school students from North-East Arnhem Land to participate in a world championship held in the United States.
Six students from Dhupuma-Barker College formed the Djirrikitj Firebirds team, which competed in the VEX Robotics World Championship held in Dallas Texas from 25 April to 4 May this year.
The task was to design a robot to participate in a competitive challenge: this year to collect a series of discs that the robot will then launch over specific distances to earn points.
“The whole robotics competition was created to become this sport of the mind — a sport you can give as something to do for those kids that are interested in STEM and engineering,” said Barker’s Head of Robotics Jeser Mross Becker.
“The basic skills are ones like problem-solving, working as a team and other important skills of that type, because they’re in year 6. So if you can get these kids working in year 6, they’ll be problem solving the rest of their [time] inside the school and then they probably will be able to better choose their pathways after that.”
Dhupuma-Barker College is a partnership between Barker and the Yothu Yindi foundation that serves the Gunyangara community in the Northern Territory, more than 600 km east of Darwin, teaching in both English and Yolŋu.
Becker said the skills developed by students were directly relevant to the industries operating on the land on which they live.
“Their community has had a mine for many years in their land, and they also now have a NASA launchpad in their land,” he explained.
“The way the community saw it — talking with Elders and sisters — was, ‘well if we’re launching rockets in my land, I also want my kids to one day be able to develop that technology’. So there was an interest in the community to develop their own technology.”
Barker Principal Phillip Heath said the students were proud of their performance in the competition, ranking 40th in their division of 80 teams.
“They don’t boast and brag but they are very proud, and the community is even prouder,” he said.
“The achievements of their children are being talked about as an object of great joy and pride right through the whole region. They’re all talking about robotics. They’re all talking about STEM; they’re all talking about solutions to challenges that involve technology.”
Heath encouraged Australians to look beyond the county’s big cities when tapping into the nation’s potential.
“What I think this illustrates is that if you give kids opportunities, extraordinary things can happen, because right across the country — and particularly in remote Australia — there is endemic genius, untapped genius,” he said.
“What this did was open up the world without forcing you to abandon your existing world, you can access another culture from the safety of your own.”
Heath hoped that more schools would be able to offer such opportunities to students in remote parts of the country.
“I think it’s important that schools with capacity and means must look outside their own boundaries, and STEM is a beautiful way to do that,” he said.
“So that it just should be not just one school, there should be 50 to 100 of these types of schools around the country.”