Jackie Makie never thought of becoming a marine biologist.
If statistics are anything to go by, that’s not surprising. Indigenous students make up 3% of the total population but less than 1% of students at university.
And, despite Sea Country being a vital part of coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ traditional culture, they are even more poorly represented in marine science programs.
But a unique program is trying to change that.
“At the start of the program I didn’t think I’d be that into marine science,” says Jackie, 15, a pupil at Heatley secondary college in Townsville. She is good at sport and before the program thought she might want to be a PE teacher. “It actually changed my mind.”
Jackie says she now wants to go to university and become a marine biologist.
In its fourth year, the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in marine science (ATSIMS) program has been reconnecting Indigenous children to the Great Barrier Reef, with a world that is central to their traditional culture and which could form part of their future.
This year the program is a finalist in the Queensland Reconciliation Awards, the winners of which will be announced on Thursday.
It enrols about 40 children from schools along the Great Barrier Reef coast and introduces them to the world of marine science.
It takes them to James Cook University, where they hear about the support they could get to study at university and take lectures from Indigenous scientists. It also takes them to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, where they see some of the nitty-gritty of marine biology – laboratory research, climate change research, robotics and remote sensing. They also spend a day at the ReefHQ in Townsville, where they see, among other things, a turtle hospital.
Finally, the program takes the group to the university’s research station at Orpheus Island near Townsville, which is where Guardian Australia travelled to see the program in action.
In an idyllic setting, the students spend two days putting some of their learning into practice in the real world.
They snorkel on the reef, practising coral identification they have learned in class. They take part in a study of marine debris, learning about the growing problem of microplastics. And they also work with film-makers to make their own documentaries about marine science on the island.
Some of the graduates of ATSIMS have had their interest in science sparked by the program and gone on to train to be science teachers. Others have taken on administrative roles in marine science agencies.
But Joseph Pollock, a marine scientist from Pennsylvania State University who founded ATSIMS when he was at James Cook University, says the key is giving the students a leg-up that they might not otherwise have had and helping them embrace an identity that they don’t always know much about.
“My philosophy is we don’t need all of these kids to come out and do marine science,” Pollock says. “If we had 40 kids coming out every single year wanting to do marine science it would be a saturated market.
“For me it’s many different things at the same time. It’s getting the kids to engage with the elders. It’s getting them to engage with their culture, with their history, with their identity – who they are. And taking pride in the fact that we’ve got these 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island clan groups up and down the Great Barrier Reef coast that have been interacting with this environment for tens of thousands of years.”
The students meet three Indigenous rangers who work on the island, learning about how they use traditional knowledge to study and conserve it the environment.
Sean Walsh is a ranger coordinator with the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, which represents nine traditional owner tribal groups covering 1.2m hectares along the Great Barrier Reef coast and inland areas.
“Just this week we’ve spent a number of days out on the water surveying for marine megafauna,” Walsh says. “The main species we were looking for was the snub nose dolphin and the rangers were successful sighting four of them on Friday.”
The Girringun rangers, as well as rangers from the Gudjuda Reference Group, were put in touch with the program by WWF Australia.
Cliff Cobbo, the coordinator of Indigenous partnerships at WWF Australia, says the program gives the students confidence.
“One of the most exciting things I’ve seen on this trip to Orpheus Island is the kids are asking a lot of questions,” he says. “I think it’s very important for Indigenous kids not to be shy and to be a little bit outward so that they not only have confidence in themselves but also know their place in the world when it comes to caring for country.”
Cobbo says the students could take the knowledge they get from the ATSIMS program and develop it by becoming an junior Indigenous ranger, and even train to become Indigenous ranger.
“It provides the opportunity for indigenous students to learn more about themselves, but more importantly, science,” Cobbo says.
Guardian Australia travelled to Orpheus Island courtesy of WWF Australia