Developing a Model and finding The Intersection

Project Goals

The primary work of this project is to assist Engineering Educators develop and sustain inclusive learning environments by “Integrating Indigenous Student Support Through Indigenous Perspectives Embedded In Engineering Curricula”. A major difference between this approach and others presently being generated, is that the focus is primarily on assisting non-indigenous individuals and groups grasp the realities of Indigenous engineering approaches to common problems, rather than on ‘helping’ Indigenous students ‘fit in’ to academic environments.

An Unanticipated Addition

A surprising – but now ‘absolutely obvious’ – theme that surfaced as we explored this question was consideration of the concept and products of Indigenous engineering. As previous posts have indicated this has become a continuing search, and a core element of the project, although it was not a consideration at the time the project was proposed. Taking an ‘inverted approach’ to creating inclusive learning environments has led to deep and serious consideration of reasons for the obvious absence of Indigenous students from engineering classrooms and roles. By ‘inverted’ we simply mean that we are looking at those students and staff who are not Indigenous and asking: ‘what do non-Indigenous individuals need to know, understand and be able to do, to make an environment in which they feel comfortable, just as welcoming for Indigenous participants?’

Inclusive Learning environments

What we mean by ‘inclusive learning environments’ and how they can be created and sustained will be reported as we complete the nominated project outcomes of

  1. Guidelines detailing indigenous cultural values and their relationship to engineering education and engineering epistemology and design
  2. Strategies for teaching STEM related content to accommodate different ways of perceiving and valuing ideas, objects and contexts
  • Strategies for restructuring technical subjects to incorporate these accommodations
  1. A model for developing and implementing elective course content focusing on indigenous cultural appreciation that is applicable to other design oriented fields
  2. An elective subject linking indigenous perspectives on country and connectedness to local engineering projects

An Emerging and Vital Question

The value of focusing on the role of non-Indigenous individuals and groups in finding a way to close the gap in regard to low Indigenous engineering student numbers, emerged because those low numbers begged the question of ‘what is about engineering that is contributing to the gap?’

As some team members are Engineering Educators, and others are not, an early task was exploring for definitions of engineering that might help answer the question of ‘what is it about engineering?’ creates this absence of Indigenous Engineers.

To find answers we had to look well beyond the discipline boundaries, since Engineering did not seem to perceive this ‘absence’ as a problem connected to its own disposition so much as having something to do those who were not being persuaded by the opportunities on offer. An early clue to a possible cause for the disparity in perceptions was found in the definition of engineering as provided by the founders of the Institute of Civil Engineers. They proclaimed engineering to be a profession charged with

. . . directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man.” (Jordan 2012)

However, this proclamation of ‘using Nature for man’s purposes’ differs markedly from Indigenous concepts of a close and inter-dependent relationship with Nature. A succinct summary of this interdependency is in Mary Graham’s (2008) article on “Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews” which highlights these contrasting perspectives. She write that, for Aboriginals –

The land is a sacred entity, not property or real estate; it is the great mother of all humanity.

The Dreaming is a combination of meaning (about life and all reality), and an action guide to living.

The two most important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first.

This is not to imply that Indigenous people never erected buildings, mined for minerals, harvested crops or otherwise disturbed the course of Nature. In fact they did all these things, successfully, for 40,000 years.

Defining Indigenous Engineering Practices

As this OLT project evolved we experienced a need to define Indigenous engineering practices. It was evident that Indigenous engineering is highly aligned with Nature’s needs and dictates, and will therefore operate differently to practices that aim to impose their will on Nature. To aid our thinking we characterised indigenous engineering as being concerned to

“… work with Country to develop and sustain safe and healthy living for the group, in a manner that enacts the custodial role of humans as caring for Country. This includes minimal disturbance of the land.

Thus far we have not found a more suitable definition published elsewhere, so are using this to guide our explorations of the phenomena of Indigenous/Aboriginal engineering.

Two features of these very different characterizations of engineering have taken primary concern in our work. The first is that all engineers clearly face (and have always faced) the same kinds of problems about such things as: transport, housing, health, generation, preparation and preservation of food. etc. The second is that each one describes quite different ways of interacting with, and conceptualising, ‘Nature’ and ‘Country’. The authors of the Institute of Civil Engineers definition clearly considered ‘Nature’ to exist simply for humanity’s ‘use and convenience’. How their humanity interacts with Nature is evident in the familiar forms of constructions, reshaping and reworking of the landscape for human purposes that we see around us today. Land, from this perspective, is to be owned, worked and used as convenient.

Consequences of applying a Custodial vs an Ownership Mindset

Indigenous engineers used stone to build extensive fish traps at Budj Bim in Victoria and Brewarrina in NSW, (two of many such – Jenkins, 2012). Aboriginal miners conducted extensive operations across Australia (DPI 2007) including at least one site known to have operated continuously for many thousands of years at Wilgie Mia in Western Australia. They also had an array of intensive agricultural activities, all highly attuned to using a low impact engagement with Nature’s varying geographic and climatic conditions (see for example Pascoe 2012, Gammage 2010 and Goonrey, 2012). The distinctive feature of all these activities, is that their management was built on custodial principles, rather than ownership based ones. In doing so, the engineer’s intention was always to cause the least possible harm to Nature.

One consequence of this approach is that such engineering can appear to be ‘less developed’ as assessed by those who do not understand, nor share a belief in, the principles informing its operations. Like any other form of engineering, Indigenous engineering creates desired outcomes (safety, comfort, sustenance etc.) but it does so in ways that align with Nature’s needs (as well as humanity’s) and are therefore highly likely to cause uninformed observers to develop misperceptions about both the quality of the work, and the apparent paucity of the thinking behind it.

In contrast, observed through the lens of Western conditions and expectations, an Indigenous lifestyle could appear ‘primitive’ and the associated engineering ‘invisible’ and therefore non-existent. When designing solutions to problems in order to deliver sustainable solutions Indigenous engineering does not separate ‘humanity’ and ‘country’ – considering them as indivisible. The principle of inter-dependence was primary, and as Sveiby and Skuthorpe (2006) demonstrate, this leads to sustainable solutions of kinds that 21st century engineering is only just beginning to appreciate.

Framing the Connections

Bringing to more general awareness a recognition of the complexity and elegance of Aboriginal engineering solutions will be complex. After much thought and debate three perspectives gradually crystalized, using the concept of ‘ways of knowing’. These three ‘ways of knowing’ that we are incorporating into the current diagram, have both unique and shared qualities, leading to the use of a simple Venn diagram to represent their inter-connectivities.

‘Western ways of knowing’, ‘Engineering ways of knowing’ and ‘Indigenous ways of knowing’ provide the initial framework for the proposed model for ‘developing and implementing elective course content focusing on indigenous cultural appreciation that is applicable to other design oriented fields. The convention in drawing a Venn diagram is to represent the circles as having equal dimensions, but this is only a convention not a fact. Appreciating that ‘essentially all models are wrong and some are useful’ (Box and Draper, 1987) we emphasise that our image is about conceptualising a way of describing relationships among different ways of thinking. It is not a way of quantifying anything. Further it is important to identify and share basic assumptions underpinning this representation. Seeking to frame this project in a manner that acknowledges barriers, values different perspectives and provides for diversity of thinking, the Venn diagram – as presently constituted – represents a key tool for discussion, exploration and development of teaching and learning options.

A Venn diagram to connect Ways of Knowing

HOW anyone knows anything is the result of numerous interactions among many diverse societal influences. In choosing a Venn diagram to represent our model we want to engender debate and discussion at multiple levels of complexity. We begin with three key variables of Engineering, Western[1] and Indigenous ways of knowing.

EAC Concept model

EAC Concept model

Engineers learn to deal with the world, and to work out how to solve human problems, in a manner that creates a uniquely ‘Engineering way of knowing’. Non-engineering team members in the project testify to encountering numerous ways in which it differs from their own disciplinary training.

Western social constructs, built on a particular way of knowing, inform such diverse aspects as language formation, social relationships and connection to the physical world. This is, of course, manifested differently in specific sub-groups called (for example) English, German, Romanian, etc.

Indigenous social constructs, built on a particular way of knowing, inform the language, relationships and connections of more than 200 Indigenous (pre contact) Australian nations.

The three overlaps created by overlapping these three elements are respectively Western/ Engineering, Engineering/Indigenous and Western/Indigenous. The overlap between ‘Western knowing’ and ‘Engineering knowing’ represents the buildings, roads, mines and technical processes etc. that we occupy and see around us in 21st century Australia.

The overlap between ‘Western knowing’ and ‘Indigenous knowing’ represents such shared social characteristics as creation and use of language and social relationships. The overlap between ‘Indigenous knowing’ and ‘Engineering knowing’ represents the shared knowledge with which engineers in both domains, create structures, devise transport routes provide food and clothing.

The Intersection

Finally in that crucial space, where all three ways of knowing intersect and overlap, we find the core focus of the model around which the project’s work is centred. We are calling this simply ‘the intersection’. Its complexity is undoubted. As is its potential for providing effective means for

  • navigating complicated conditions
  • addressing as yet unsolved dilemmas
  • enabling engagement of disconnected and disheartened individuals and groups

There is much more to come on this emerging model!

[1] As the project is occurring within an entirely ‘Western’ mode of academic development it is logical to use this term. Were we in an Asian context a different term would obviously be necessary.


Box, G. E. P., and Draper, N. R., (1987), Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY.

DPI (2007) Mining by Aborigines – Australia’s first miners, Department of Primary Industry NSW PrimeFact 572

Goonrey, C (2012) Report on an Aboriginal Land Management Workshop led by Rod Mason a respected Ngarigo elder from the Monaro region of NSW held at Garuwanga via Nimmitabelle NSW – report prepared for National Parks Australia

Graham, Mary (2008) Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews in Australian Humanities Review, Issue 4, ANU E Press Retrieved 22/8/2014 from

Jordan, J W, (2012) The engineering of Budj Bim and the evolution of a societal structure in Aboriginal Australia Institution of Engineers Australia, Australian Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Engineering, Vol 9 No 1

Sveiby, Karl-Erik, Skuthorpe, Tex (2006) Treading Lightly Allen & Unwin, Sydney

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