Computer science in Māori or Innuit: Why Indigenous youth in New Zealand and Canada embrace it

When Māori teacher Maikara Dargaville’s children were 4 and 5, he noticed that all of the technology they were consuming was in English. If nothing changed, “Māori worldview would not be reflected in the technology,” he says.

Now Dargaville works with New Zealand nonprofit OMGTech! to coin new terminology that doesn’t exist in Māori. Some of the new words in Maori include “rorohiko” (“computer”), with “roro” meaning “brain” and “hiko,” “energy”. The newly-minted Māori word for “digital” is “matihiko,” a compound word that literally translates as “finger energy.”

But why teach computer science in Māori, Innuit, Samoan, or another Indigenous language if native students will likely use English once they join the labor market in New Zealand or Canada?

“It is about holding on to your identity,” says Zoe Timbrell, general manager of OMGTech! in Auckland, New Zealand.

In Ottawa, Canada — 18 time zones away from Auckland — Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua, echoed that thought. Actua works in partnership with First Nation, Innuit, and Métis (FNIM) communities in programs designed to, as she put it, “make sure that the content we are delivering is bridging Western science and technology with traditional knowledge and worldview.”

Both women say translating these activities is also about “redressing colonial-era wrongs and creating an even playing field for young members of the original nations.”

OMGTech! was established about seven years ago to provide access to future-shaping technologies to all young people, with a specific focus on those who are being excluded from computer science and educational resources due to language and other barriers.

“In New Zealand, we’ve had huge disparities because there are a lot of young people who don’t have access to technology, and their homes don’t have internet,” says Timbrell, adding that the educational disparity over the last couple of years of pandemic lockdowns “has grown massively.”

Such obstacles have been compounded by historical factors. Limiting the use of native languages was one of the key tools of colonization, Timbrell says, which means revitalizing and using the languages for tech education are key to engaging native youth in computer disciplines.

“If you don’t see yourself reflected in the technology, you will always feel a little off,” she said.

In Canada, Actua’s National Indigenous Youth in STEM (InSTEM) program incorporates current Indigenous research and community approaches to education to help Indigenous youths achieve their potential in technology. Every year, Actua engages more than 35,000 FNIM youths in more than 200 communities across the country. Actua has been collaborating with Indigenous nations for about 25 years.

How the conversation with robots turns

OMGTech! has translated four Hour of Code tutorials in Māori during the last five years. They’ve also translated Code.org’s AI for Oceans tutorial into Samoan, which will be available soon. Timbrell said the organization is working extensively with Pacific nations that are very different and widely dispersed, generally with very small populations. OMGTech! strives to use representative language.

“We have robots and we have taught our robots to speak five different languages: Māori, Samoan, Tongan, Tokelauan, and English,” Timbrell says. The robots aren’t very sophisticated: “They just have five commands, so it’s not super hard: ‘Go forward, go back, turn left, turn right.’.” Still, students were initially confused. “Because in Pacific languages, where dancing is huge, where do you want to turn? Twisting slightly?” Timbrell says, then illustrated by executing a dance move. “It was more complicated than we thought.”

Despite such minor glitches, the robot experience was a major success, she says. When students saw that they could use these robots in their own languages, “their faces would just light up and they were blown away.”

Minecraft has also been a useful tool for helping teach coding in Māori, “because they can see themselves reflected in everything they make,” Dargaville says. A Māori organization developed Ngā Motu (“The Islands”), a world within Minecraft that is representative of Māori and Rarotonga homelands and includes native animals. “It’s not about creating one solution; it’s about creating connected solutions that are connected to your indigeneity,” Timbrell says.

Laying the groundwork in Canada

In Canada, Actua works in English, French, and Indigenous languages, often with staff who are fluent in the latter. “We have an elder translate in a community or translate in advance, but our programming has been translated into almost all of the Indigenous languages and dialects,” Flanagan says.

At the same time, Flanagan identifies issues that need to be tackled prior to teaching computer science, even in Indigenous languages. “Coding using traditional language is so many steps ahead,” she says. “It’s really important and really an incredible thing to pursue, but there’s a lot of groundwork for us to be laying.”

High school completion rates are significantly lower for First Nation, Innuit, and Métis youth, Flanagan noted. “Certainly the number of Indigenous youth who are pursuing university education and earning degrees is much lower,” she says. “When you look in the sciences, it’s almost a very, very low percentage of Indigenous youth [who] are pursuing those fields.”

Though Actua has been pursuing its STEM program with FNIM youth for more than 20 years, their big commitment is working with communities over longer periods of time.“We never want to just go into a community for a one-off program and come out,” Flanagan says. “It’s very much about building relationships over time — building trust — and that’s really the way that we’ve been able to build the capacity of Indigenous communities to deliver and participate in this content.”

Code like a girl

Reaching girls and young women has been a special focus at OMGTech! from day one, Timbrell says. Instructors originally focused on girls aged 8 to 12 because biases and stereotypes tend to sway girls out of generally male-dominated careers as they grow up. As a result, the students were overall gender-balanced, “So, everything we did was 50–50 at least and we always had women or other marginalized genders at our events,” she says.

Along the way, OMGTech! learned that much of the narrative around technology comes from gaming, which especially matters when it comes to girls. “In New Zealand, 48 percent of gamers are actually women,” Timbrell says. “We run an Indigenous game design program that runs in secondary schools across the country and our young women are incredible in that.”

In Canada, girls usually lead the pack, Flanagan says. “We tend to find the opposite in a lot of Indigenous communities and that is that it’s boys who are less engaged than girls… typically it’s girls who are more encouraged in education and the boys who are more encouraged in traditional knowledge, in traditional cultural practices,” she said. “We actually get the opposite: We get more girls than boys coming to our programs.”

Still, there is more work to do to improve engagement, Flanagan says. “It’s really, really important that we continue to raise awareness about how much opportunity there is in these fields for boys and for girls and continue to deliver content that is going to be relevant to their lives.”

In a survey conducted last year about young FNIM students’ confidence in digital skills, Actua found that girls across the board reported numbers that were half as much as those of boys. “Half as confident, half as interested, half as many opportunities,” Flanagan said, referring to female students. “That was a huge eye-opener and that would be just Indigenous students, but, oh, my goodness, it’s just a really important stat.”

Bridging the gaps

Both OMGTech! and Actua seek to empower Indigenous communities by both promoting tech education and building community partnerships based on equality, Timbrell says, “So, it’s really important to us as we work to provide this as a resource to Indigenous communities that this is very much led by them, owned by them,” she said. The communities decide how the program is developed and utilized.

Flanagan has observed how Actua’s work can help people discover a talent for science they were unaware they had.

“One story that I love is: We had a youth in one of our land camps, where we are with Indigenous elders teaching alongside our instructors, who had been told over and over again that he was not good at math, that he should just give up on science and that engineering topics [weren’t] for him, that he was more art-focused,” Flanagan said. “And he just went to this camp — someone probably forced him to go — and it was a 180-turn on how he viewed the importance of science and technology at the level of his community and in his own life.”

Land camps offer opportunities for youth to go out on the land and learn from Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and Actua’s STEM instructors, offering a direct relationship between these two knowledge sets.

Now a university student, the young man, Ganaaboute Gagne, went on to lead Actua’s youth council, whose representatives help inform the organization’s decisions and program designs. “He has just been a phenomenal young Indigenous leader and continues to be to this day and will credit his experience with Actua as just opening a whole other world,” Flanagan said. “He had no idea that there was a place for him in science.”

OMGTech! takes a similar approach. “Who better to design the future than the people who experience it?” Timbrell asks. There is an urgent need to engage every part of society in tech literacy, she observes. “The rationale behind that,” she says, “is that with technology virtually changing every part of society, changing how we learn, changing how we access or deliver healthcare, changing how we vote… technology itself will be dictating a lot of how humanity and civilization goes forward.”

— Jake Bell & Lara Sepúlveda Machado, Code.org

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