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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been practising engineering and sustainably managing Country for over 70,000 years. But in the engineering sector, the number of Indigenous engineers employed in Australia remains low. How can we attract this critical Indigenous knowledge into the sector, and build a better representation of First Nations engineers? 

In October 2022, 27 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engineers, educators, Traditional Owners, students, and land and sea managers came together from across the country to address just that – creating a shared vision to inspire a new generation of Indigenous engineers.

Committed to changing that, the group convened on Gadigal Country for the Yarrawarra Forum – the inaugural initiative of Engineers Australia’s Indigenous Engineers Group (IEG) (‘yarrawarra’ being the Gumbaynggirr word for ‘happy meeting place’). The Forum brought these expert voices together to begin the process of co-designing a unique program that will provide a pathway for more young Indigenous people to forge a career in engineering.

A special interest group of Engineers Australia’s College of Leadership and Management, the IEG is a network of shared knowledge, perspectives, support and inspiration for young professional and upcoming Indigenous engineers. Their focus on reaching young Indigenous students and showcasing the vast opportunities a career in engineering can provide for them, their family and their communities sparked this initiative, which is being delivered with support from Engineers Without Borders Australia and event sponsor Aurecon.

Grant Maher, descendant of the Gumbaynggirr and Biripi people, Structural and Facade Engineer, and Chairperson of the Indigenous Engineers Group, explains why this initiative is so important.

“We’ve seen an enormous increase in demand for Indigenous Engineers to engage in projects throughout Australia, but the demand far outweighs the number of working Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engineers. The past 15-20 years we have seen the development of STEM related pathways and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island kids in late high-school and university, but this has not been there for primary and middle school kids. It is needed here to ignite that spark and interest in STEM, in particular engineering. This program seeks to address this – we need to create and develop the next engineers and leaders for our people – this is where this initiative differs from others. It focuses on the pipeline, development and support of these kids from their early stages of schooling right through to their tertiary studies and into their career as a professional engineer,” says Grant.

Delegates at the Yarrawarra Forum. Photo credit: Wayne Quilliam

So, what did the delegates come up with?

Across two days, the delegates explored a number of ways to meaningfully show young Indigenous people that undertaking a career in engineering will create opportunities for them, their families and their communities. Guest Professor Martin Nakata from James Cook University set the scene by presenting research around some of the barriers to First Nations young people entering and performing in STEM pathways from school to university. This research found that engagement at younger ages is critical to success. After deeper discussion and activities, the delegates drafted a variety of program designs that included education workshops and digital resources to support ongoing learning by students and teachers.

The delegates proposed that the program should be place-based and delivered on Country by Indigenous facilitators with support from friends in the engineering sector – with culture and community at the centre. By engaging younger, primary school and early high school-aged students, their families and community to engineering, the program will address a gap in current initiatives and showcase to students the relevance of engineering at an age before they’ve made up their mind on their future. They also felt the program should showcase how Indigenous engineering is very real and alive today in traditional artefacts and tools to connect engineering to their culture and identity, while combining both modern and traditional skills.

The group also raised the importance of demystifying what engineering is and engaging young people in engineering for Country. They aim to do this by grounding the program in real, local aspirations and challenges by working closely with community to tailor each program. Not only should engineering be made relevant to their community; it must also be tangible by seeing real Indigenous role model facilitators. This will be possible through linking kids to other support organisations and mentoring as they grow older, in order to foster pathways to engineering.

Josh McLeod, a proud Dharug man and descendant of the Boorooberongal Clan, was a delegate at the Yarrawarra Forum, and is EWB Australia’s STEM Pathways Lead.  Says Josh, “It was inspiring to work with such a deadly group from all over Australia that all shared their passion for improving our representation of First Nations people with STEM careers. It was incredible to have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges we all face in the STEM space as First Nations people. I’m looking forward to witnessing the powerful outcomes of the Forum and watching our younger generations thrive in the world we are building.”

Some of the yarning and findings captured at the Yarrawarra Forum. Credit: Emma Shumack

What’s next?

A steering committee has now been established to oversee the co-design of an outreach program to be delivered by Indigenous engineers on Country, building on the ideas proposed during the Yarrawarra Forum. Two pilot initiatives are currently in development in Far North Queensland, and reflections from those programs will inform a national approach to support the next generation of Indigenous engineers.

At this exciting and formative stage, the program needs support from the engineering and philanthropic sectors. If you or your organisation would like to help enable the next phases of this groundbreaking program, please contact Grace Roberts, EWB Australia Pathways Outreach Program Manager at g.roberts@ewb.org.au.
If you’re interested in being part of Engineers Australia’s Indigenous Engineers Group, you can find out more and sign up here.
The IEG and EWB Australia would like to thank event sponsor Aurecon for their support of the Yarrawarra Forum.