Teacher background information


Year 6 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Science involves testing predictions by gathering data and using evidence to develop explanations of events and phenomena and reflects historical and cultural contributions (ACSHE098 - Scootle )

  • investigating how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples test predictions and gather data in the development of technologies and processes (OI.5, OI.9)

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have longstanding science capabilities. Science is a body of empirical, theoretical and practical knowledge about the universe that is constructed through the scientific processes of observing, predicting and gathering data to understand and explain events and phenomena. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have worked scientifically for millennia in the development of technologies and processes, often in isolation from other cultural influences and ideas, for thousands of years. These intellectual ways of working have resulted in the successful and continued occupation of Australia’s diverse geographic landscapes and climatic conditions for more than 60,000 years. This elaboration allows students to deepen their knowledge and awareness of the ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples worked, and continue to work, scientifically through testing, trial and error, observation, verification through repetition, inference and prediction. The development of myriad technologies and processes, for example, lever mechanisms and cutting-edge tools, demonstrates the ingenuity, science capability and innovation of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

The word science originated in the 14th century from Latin scientia meaning knowledge and scīre to know, although the practice of science existed well before this time. Science is a dynamic, collaborative and creative human endeavour that strives to build knowledge and understanding of events and phenomena through a systematic process. Although the term science is a Western construct, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have worked scientifically to develop knowledge, technologies and processes.

All science is founded on careful observation. For many thousands of years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples made scientific observations using their acute observational skills without the highly sophisticated technologies available in contemporary science today. A clear example of this can be found in the Aboriginal knowledge of the lime content of the plant Acacia salicina which contains the highest lime content of any known native Australian plant. Aboriginal ways of working scientifically identified a way to expedite the release of alkaloids from alkaloid-containing plants such as Duboisia hopwoodii. Aboriginal Peoples in the Central Desert were observed chewing D. hopwoodii mixed with ash from A. salicina. The saliva provided the moisture and A. salicina provided the lime necessary for release of the alkaloid from D. hopwoodii. In the early 1900s A. salicina was investigated by Western scientific methods using litmus paper as a chemical indicator, technology that at the time was only 100 years old. This research reaffirmed the high lime content of A. salicina and highlights the effectiveness of the scientific processes of testing predictions and gathering data employed by Aboriginal Peoples in the identification, liberation and use of this important chemical compound. The scientific processes employed by Aboriginal Peoples resulted in extensive chemical knowledge of plant constituents and their concentrations across a diversity of species.

A lever is an example of a simple machine that confers a mechanical advantage to a system by altering the magnitude or direction of a force on an object. Aboriginal Peoples have demonstrated understanding of the phenomenon of leverage through the design and development of the spear-thrower, a lever mechanism that imparts greater force to a spear. The spear-thrower acts as an extension of the thrower’s arm and the increased force within the lever system results in the spear having the capacity to travel further and impact with greater force than when a spear is thrown by arm alone. It has been suggested that in Australia, this technology may have existed more than 20,000 years ago. Spear-thrower technology incorporates many variables that need to be considered in the design and construction of both the spear-thrower and the spear projectile. Modern scientific evaluation of the technology of the spear-thrower acknowledges the sophisticated scientific inquiry that is employed in the design and construction of a spear-thrower. For example, variation in the shape, length and mass of the spear-thrower will affect the distance and accuracy of the launched projectile. Similarly, the spears that are used with a specific spear-thrower need to be carefully constructed with respect to variables such as mass, length and balance for optimum performance. The development of spear-thrower technology clearly demonstrates the scientific process Aboriginal peoples used in the formulation of predictions, and the testing and gathering of data, to develop the optimal tool set. 

As another example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use the knowledge of plants containing saponin as a means of sustainably harvesting fish. On Mer Island in the Torres Strait, leaves of the vine Derris uliginosa (sad in the Meriam Mir language of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait) are pounded to release saponin and the crushed leaves are thrown into the water to stupefy fish. The Mitakoodi Peoples of the Cloncurry River region in north Queensland use the plant Tephrosia astragaloides for the same purpose. Again, the leaves are crushed and bruised before bundles of leaves are thrown into a waterhole, stunning the fish and allowing easy harvest as they rise to the surface of the waterhole. The development of this biochemical process required the scientific processes of observation of the phenomenon, hypothesising, gathering data, and using evidence. In addition, the understanding that the phenomenon of secondary poisoning did not occur required further scientific evaluation and complex physiological understanding. Secondary poisoning can occur when a second organism ingests a poisoned organism and is then also affected by the substance. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples who ingest fish that have been harvested using plant saponins are not affected by the poison. The knowledge and understanding underpinning this process required the use of the scientific method such as careful observation, formulating predictions, testing of predictions, and gathering of data and evidence. For example:

Which plant species contain poisons that only target fish?

Will using plant poisons kill other important living organisms in the ecosystem?

How much of the poison is required to be effective?

How do I administer the poison?

Will the poisoned fish make me sick after eating it?

Aboriginal Peoples are acknowledged as the first cultures to develop ground edge axes. This technological innovation required the development of complex grinding and abrading techniques. The earliest ground edge axe recovered from Bunuba Country in the south of the West Kimberley region in Western Australia has been dated to about 49,000 years ago. Stone tool production demands detailed geological knowledge to source the appropriate type of stone for a specific tool, and knowledge of the processing technologies required to manufacture that implement.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples used scientific methods to identify the particular rock types that can be manipulated to flake and produce a highly effective cutting edge as sharp, and at times sharper, than a modern steel blade. Rocks, such as obsidian, flint, quartzite and chert are highly sought after as they lack pre-existing fault lines or planes. These rock types form conchoidal fractures (Hertzian cones); predictable fractures that occur when a high energy impact is applied. Aboriginal Peoples understand the physics of fracturing rocks in this manner to produce sharp edges and enable the manufacture of cutting tools. The Warumungu and Kaytetye Peoples of the Northern Territory applied the knowledge and understanding of physics and geology in the manufacture of quartzite cutting implements.

Heat lithic treatment is a process whereby rock is carefully heated to precise temperatures for defined durations to improve the flaking quality of the rock and obtain better quality cutting tools. Over time, Aboriginal Peoples have refined the heat lithic treatment process through significant testing and trial and error. This involved the careful application of heat, monitoring the time and temperature to ensure heating and cooling of rock was not too rapid and that the thermal limit of the rock was not exceeded. Successful heat lithic treatment to improve the flaking properties of rocks requires the understanding and application of the scientific process to make observations, predict outcomes and test predictions by gathering data and information to answer questions. For example:

What types of rock are improved by heat treatment?

What size of rock can be treated?

How much heat needs to be applied and for how long?

This process is indicative of how Aboriginal Peoples used prediction, scientific testing and gathering evidence to determine whether (or not) heat-treating rocks would improve stone tool production.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used scientific methods, such as making predictions and gathering data, in the development of technologies and processes. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used, and continue to use, scientific methods across all disciplines of science to explain events and phenomena such as leverage and lithic fractures, and apply this knowledge to develop new technologies and processes.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

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