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Indigenous students get the opportunity to RISE

Volume 10 Number 12 December 8 2014 - January 11 2015

Trinity College student mentor Amba-Rose Atkinson, with Natashka Ozies and Teneille Francis, both from Yiramalay Studio School. Photo: Richard Timbury.
Trinity College student mentor Amba-Rose Atkinson, with Natashka Ozies and Teneille Francis, both from Yiramalay Studio School. Photo: Richard Timbury.


Indigenous high school students from across Australia gathered at the University last month for a week of hands-on science experiences. By Nerissa Hannink.

As the saying goes, ‘experience is the best teacher’. 

So to allow Indigenous high school students to get hands-on with science, engineering and maths, the University of Melbourne and the Gene Technology Access Centre (GTAC) recently put together a week of cultural and academic activities.

The program, known as RISE (the Residential Indigenous Science Experience), aimed to inspire students about the exciting and rewarding careers that can eventuate from studying maths and science.

Professor Phil Batterham from the University’s Department of Genetics and Bio21 Institute co-developed the program for year 9 and 10 Indigenous high school students.

“We know that for a variety of personal and social reasons many students in the middle high school years can become disengaged with study,” Professor Batterham says. “And unfortunately Indigenous students are underrepresented for science and maths subjects that are prerequisites for many university courses.”

So Professor Batterham applied for the University’s Equity Innovation Grant and teamed up with Dr Roger Rassool from the Department of Physics, Dr Tony Chiovitti from GTAC, the Murrup Barak Institute for Indigenous Development and IBM to develop the RISE program.

 This year around 50 Indigenous high school students stayed at the University’s Trinity College for practical workshops and special presentations on chemistry, geology, genetics, physics and maths. 

The academic program is carefully crafted to ensure that students are actively engaged in relevant issues and experience the tangible and hands-on nature of science, including visits to industry.

Highlights of the week also included visits to the Australian Synchrotron, VicRoads traffic control, and the Scienceworks Museum. At GTAC, students worked in small groups with PhD scientists to gain exposure to cutting-edge research techniques in microbiology and molecular biology. 

The program included cultural and social experiences to strengthen the bonds between the students and introduce some to the city of Melbourne. Participants were supported throughout the week by Indigenous and non-Indigenous mentors.

“We want all students to know that university study can lead to great opportunities in the future. So by giving them a taste of campus life, hopefully they will be inspired to stay on at high school and achieve,” Professor Batterham says.

For some of the participants the program is helpful in confirming their intention to study science at university; some change their degree preference but gain more confidence for tertiary study, and others change direction completely after the RISE program.

Brad Versteeg from Merbein P-12 College says he came to the program wanting to explore the fields of science in a way he hadn’t been able to do within the classroom.

“My favourite experience of the RISE program was taking part in a fantastic array of cultural and scientific activities. The opportunities we were given had never been offered to me by any other program,” he says.

“The program brings new people together and creates amazing new bonds between the groups, the staff that we visit and the mentors throughout the camp.

“On completion of my VCE I was planning to have a gap year in which I would build up my fitness and prepare for going through the Australian Defence Force training and eventually find a career in the ADF. 

“After the experiences at RISE I have changed paths to pursue a career in the police force in a forensics division, something that had always been on my mind but always seemed unreachable.”

Interest in the RISE program has grown year on year from 17 students when the program first began in 2012 to over 50 students enrolled in 2014.

Ms Rhondda Davis from Murrup Barak works closely with high schools that participate in the program, and says that one of the most rewarding outcomes is that some students have asked to come back to RISE the next year. 

“We run special activities for returning participants because there’s nothing better than to have these young, inspiring people share their excitement about science,” she says.

Interest in RISE has also grown nationally with seven students from Djarragun College near Cairns joining the program this year.

“The University is committed to attracting Indigenous Australians to study at Melbourne and it is important for students to see themselves in the University setting, and believe it can be a reality for their futures,” Ms Davis says.