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Two-way learning opportunity for QUT students and teachers

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With thanks to the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation’s Land and Sea Program

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) ecology students (95 students participated across three trips) held their inaugural field trip to study different forest types’ cultural and ecological characteristics on K’gari in early September 2021.

The goal was for the future biological and environmental scientists and their teachers to learn from Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation’s Land and Sea Program Blayde Foley and Tilly Davis about the cultural significance of sites and flora (where appropriate to share), and environmental biosecurity threats and management.

Tilly Davis, BLSR teaches QUT students at Eli Creek, identifying plant species and their uses as tools, building materials and medicines (Photo: Jenn Firn)

QUT students were also taught on one of the days in the field by University of Sunshine Coast (USC) researcher Associate Professor Grahame Applegate, who recently published Vegetation of Fraser Island/K’gari, a required text for the course. The other required course text is Dr Fiona Foley’s book (Butchulla artist and academic, Griffith University), Biting the Clouds, A Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1987, which recently won the QLD’s Premier Literacy award. QUT students and teachers were also honoured to speak with Dr Foley in August in Brisbane while surrounded by her impactful multi-media art that speaks volumes at her retrospective art show. QUT students and teachers also had the honour to meet and hear from Aunty Joyce Bonner Butchulla, a Community Linguist who sang ‘K’gari Nyinda Narmi’ and her song ‘Ngali Yan’ (We All Walk)—a special moment, all will remember. Because of the generosity of the BAC, BLSR, USC, and Griffith University, the students were immersed in a unique holistic learning community.

Tilly Davis, BLSR and QUT students preparing to put in a transect to collect vegetation data at breathtaking Pile Valley (Photo: Jenn Firn)

Tilly gave QUT students and teachers evening presentations on how myrtle rust threatens Butchulla country and cultural values. Blayde and Tilly also regularly discussed cultural fire management as a successful and sustainable management strategy for biosecurity threats, particularly for myrtle rust and weed management. Both Rangers also participated in all the data collection activities teaching alongside QUT teachers every step of the way.

“I emphasised to the students the extensive ecological, biological, and botanical knowledge of our old people that has been passed down through the generations and how themes of physics and chemistry are embedded in Indigenous cultures”, said Tilly. QUT students and teachers also learned about the three Butchulla Lores and were given opportunities to reflect on how they applied to their studies and career aspirations.

Collage of some student posters drawn in one night and presented the next morning before departing K’gari to highlight what they had learnt

Our collective goal (BLSR and QUT) was for the students “to appreciate the significance of Indigenous knowledge and the importance of engaging with the first scientists, Aboriginal and Zendath Kes/Torres Strait Islander peoples.” Importantly, we hope that the students will strive “to combine cultural and academic sciences to create sustainable solutions; while respecting Indigenous peoples’ intellectual property and cultural protocols”, as Tilly described.

The students wrote and gave talks about what they learned before leaving K’gari and were a little shocked when, as scientists, they were given the task of drawing their learning. However, they quickly embraced the opportunity to be creative.

Examples of direct student reflections on the field trip.

 “I think the thing that stuck with me was that science extends past what we know now. It is not just what is discovered in a lab or through examination, it’s also significantly reliant on historic cultural practices passed down through generations, like those of the Butchulla who have a unique understanding of the land (which we can’t possibly understand to the full extent without them). Science can sometimes only take you so far, and that is why it is so important for ecological scientists and indigenous ecological scientists to work hand in hand. This is something that I know I’ll remember for later years when I’m in the field, and until that trip I had not realized the significance.” QUT science student Jessicah Lewis

“What stood out was the way the Butchulla people would treat the pandanus fruit to detoxify it. I can’t imagine the process it took to refine their technique, but their persistence and ingenuity are really incredible. What was also memorable was the focus of land management. I remember Tilly mentioning how the vines clogged up the shrubbery and stopped the wongari from getting through. The animal-centric approach was new to me (and while of course, flora on its own is important) it was great to see that approach.” QUT science student Kara Thompson

“Listening and talking with Tilly and Blayde, were invaluable for me. I really appreciate informal information flows, and collaborative learning environments – where conversation breathes life into memories with lived experience. I see these moments as opportunities to unravel knots of ideo-spatial ‘knowledge’. I value reflective service-learning too, which is how I related to the poster presentation activity. Open environments make minds open.” QUT environmental science student Zachary Van Haaften-Thompson

Students walking along the track from Central Station to Lake Boorangoora (Photo: Jenn Firn)

The common theme across all student talks was the information that Tilly and Blayde shared with them and expressed how they were deeply affected by the opportunity to learn from the Rangers. Without being prompted, most of the groups acknowledged Butchulla country and Elders before their presentations. Seeing the students making an effort to respect cultural protocols and recall with enthusiasm what the BLSRs shared with them was inspiring and showed the learning community achieved its goal.

During the field trip, QUT students collected data on the features of the trees in the overstory and the trees and other plants in the understory. QUT will share the data collected and the highest achieving student scientific reports with the BAC and the BLSRs.

Thank you, BAC and BLSR.

Article contributed by Jennifer Firn, Queensland University of Technology and Matilda (Tilly) Davis, Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation’s Land and Sea Ranger Program 


1 Comment

  1. Susan Zela Bissett says:

    Thanks for this informative account. Sounds like the event was VERY worthwhile!

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