Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part One)

At the recent Aboriginal Engineering summit in Melbourne, we presented the model underlying our recommended approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. – (open link here) EAC Flyer 2015-1

This entry is part one of three entries exploring the model itself and introducing underlying principles and philosophies that inform the work of the ‘Engineering Across Cultures’ project.

As the culmination of a great deal of thought, analysis and discussion, we are finding that the simplicity of the sequence represented in this single image is both attractive and readily creates curiosity and conversation. Different people are tending to zero in on one or other aspect of the whole as they link our ideas to their own interests and understanding.

The model has the capacity to generate conversations and enquiry in ways that are both exciting and challenging. A brief description of each ‘step’ in the image of the model must begin with an understanding that it is a cycle, or spiral of development. Each step opens up avenues for exploration of the knowledge and concepts it represents. And no single visit to the model provides a complete or comprehensive understanding of its detail.

In this respect it somewhat resembles an Aboriginal approach of revealing knowledge through repetition and revisiting concepts and principles as understanding evolves. Therefore this summary of the elements within the model is not intended to be comprehensive or complete. Readers are invited to explore the image, question the model it represents and explore the elements that interest them most. The whole model is then likely to take on new meaning as emerging thoughts and ideas are integrated into an understanding of how we propose that Aboriginal perspectives on – and knowledges of – engineering can be integrated into modern engineering education.

Beliefs informing the model

Underpinning convictions that inform many efforts to redress past wrongs in regard to Aboriginal peoples are based on a superiority/inferiority dichotomy. Applying this view to the status and capabilities of Aboriginal peoples produces a ‘deficit model’ and positions European achievements – in regard to such things as health practices and engineering – as the goal to be sought. In doing so, it ignores equivalent Aboriginal achievements. In fact it does more than that – it actually denigrates and denies them, and very effectively conceals the possibility that pre-contact Aboriginal society was capable of complex thought. (see the Blog entry on ‘what is wrong with this question, to see just one example of an otherwise smart man trapped in that negative view).

Realisation of this problem emerged from exploration of the question ‘what is Aboriginal Engineering?’ This question was prompted by the puzzled enquiry from many people about ‘what engineering did Aboriginal peoples have?’ Exploration of archaeology and anthropology sources revealed the simple, and very powerful response that ‘Aboriginal people had exactly the same kinds of engineering skills and knowledge as any other civilisation. The difficulty in finding it lies in the fact that it was applied in a very different manner, in accord with a quite different social and moral philosophy summarised by the phrase ‘cause minimum harm’.

Thus the new philosophy informing our approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education is simply – but profoundly – to begin with the concept of a knowledge gap. Conventionally educated engineering educators have not learned about Aboriginal engineering – in the same way that Aboriginal school kids do not learn about either their own traditions or more evident western engineering practices.

The knowledge gap is equal – both sides are ignorant of what is available to be learned. Acknowledging this leads to a panorama of learning opportunities that simultaneously remove the stigma of a ‘superiority/ inferiority dichotomy’, and invite collaborative exploration of how engineering principles can be so similar in conceptual terms yet create such divergent outcomes.

In short – the knowledge gap opens up learning opportunities that position all parties as equal and locates ‘knowing’ as something to be achieved through collaborative exchange of information and beliefs.

Three perspectives

For more on this aspect of the model see the Blog entry ‘Intersecting Worldviews with which to explore Aboriginal Engineering’ (May 8th 2015).

At this point the key fact to be emphasised is that the Venn Diagram presents a coherent and yet complexly challenging way of representing three overlapping Worldviews – identified respectively as Aboriginal, Engineering and Dominant. At the central point of intersection arise many opportunities for understanding more about both the Worldviews themselves, as well as exploring how over-reliance on one perspective can blind the user to the existence, and contributions of the other two.

The Dominant perspective contributes heavily to the ‘deficit model’ described above. It assures those who hold it that theirs is the ‘right view’ and forms and shapes much of what is ‘taken for granted’ in daily social interaction. Paradoxically, it is probably the ‘least obvious’ of the Worldviews given its dominance. To use the analogy of fish in water, the Dominant perspective is so integral to the surrounding social context that its influence is largely invisible, simply because it is ‘what we know’ and what we do not question.

An Engineering perspective is usually acquired through sufficient time and study within the carefully controlled conditions of an academic environment. It enables those who become familiar with it to see the world in terms of such things as measurement, construction, and problem solving. Regardless of whether an ‘engineer’ was trained in ‘Western’ or ‘Aboriginal’ concepts the perspective applied to any given set of problematic conditions will be an ‘engineering’ one unfamiliar to those who have not had equivalent training.

An Aboriginal perspective is gained through familial and social engagement from birth. Like any other social grouping, Aboriginal families assist their children to learn about the world in particular, and specific ways. This perspective is learnable, but usually restricted in the first instance to families with an Aboriginal heritage. In our model we pay particular attention to this perspective, since it is the one least known or understood by the wider community.

One Intersection

The central point of Intersection, in the Venn Diagram, provides opportunities for any two individuals to explore how the differences in the ways they view the world offer exciting opportunities for extending their understanding of all three perspectives. For engineers this is especially important, since a good understanding of both their own views, and those of Aboriginal owners of land, who are possessors of a very different set of insights into how the world works.

The next Blog entry will explore five aspects informing that insights, along with 5Rights © that provide a behavioural and knowledge map to guide interactions among all those involved in engineering projects.

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