Embedding Learning from the World’s Oldest Astronomers into Teaching

QUT’s 100th Associate Fellow (Indigenous) recipient, Dr Michael Cowley, is an astrophysicist who draws on perspectives from the world’s oldest astronomers in his teaching.

Astronomers have a rich history of Indigenous perspectives to draw from and apply in their practice. Aboriginal peoples’ links to astronomy stretch back over 60,000 years, making them the world’s oldest astronomers. This historical knowledge, however, is rarely acknowledged in Euro-centric texts. By embedding these perspectives into his teaching and Fellowship, Dr Cowley seeks to address this gap.

Dr Michael Cowley teaches learners as part of QUT’s School of Chemistry and Physics. He ensures that this is not only acknowledged but an integral part of learning about astrophysics and astronomy at QUT.

In the recent Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA) (Indigenous) round, Michael became QUT’s 100th AFHEA (Indigenous) recipient. He wanted to address the gap he saw in the way we teach astronomy in the higher education sector.

When we teach astronomy, one of the first things we do is we teach the history of astronomy and there is a massive gap in that,” he explains.

“I always say, you grab any textbook on the history of astronomy, and it usually starts with the ancient Greeks or the Mayans dating back several thousand years ago. But it never talks about the Indigenous Australians and the fact that they have shown that they had an intimate understanding of the night sky and they used it to inform their very way of life – it was astronomy.”

When Michael started teaching at QUT three years ago, he took advantage of resources and training provided by the Carumba Institute and the QUT Academy of Learning and Teaching. He found that the professional development modules, Indigenous Perspectives in Learning and Teaching and applying for AFHEA (Indigenous), assisted him “to understand how Indigenous perspectives should be integrated respectfully.”

Michael’s process in embedding Indigenous perspectives into his teaching has been an iterative one.

“The history that I delivered initially was disconnected and presented as a standalone lecture” he explained. Reflecting on student reactions to his earlier lectures where Western and Indigenous astronomy history were presented separately, he observed that “it didn’t seem to be connecting with the students.”

For example, students weren’t choosing Indigenous astronomy as a topic for their assessment.

Michael therefore took a different approach. He made links between Indigenous and Western astronomy, integrated relevant information throughout the semester and highlighted the strengths of Indigenous astronomy. For example, when discussing supernova events in class, Michael found a natural connection where ancient Indigenous astronomers may have recorded supernovae events. After taking this approach, he found that his unit “started to flow better and students began voluntarily picking Indigenous astronomy as their topic for research essays, presentations and news articles.” He also observed that students were producing “fantastic” high quality work.

A key part of Michael’s success has been his close relationships with Indigenous colleagues and experts. For example, his colleague Peter Swanton, a researcher and Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay man at Australian National University, has been able to “contribute to lectures and assist students with interviews.” However, he also notes that the Indigenous partners he works with in this area “are under a lot of strain because this space is exploding. There is an onslaught of academics and others relying on them to contribute in this space.” He emphasised that this strain is “something that academics need to be mindful of. Start with your own research and see what has been done.”

Receiving his AFHEA (Indigenous) was a priority for Michael because

diversity is a massive challenge and something that’s really important to me and a big component of that is making sure that people are represented within the lecture material.”

“Hopefully that will make people feel more comfortable whether they are Indigenous or not, so non-Indigenous people can speak about it [Indigenous astronomy] and Indigenous people can take pride in the fact that we’re talking about their culture as well. And hopefully that will have a trickle-down effect to undergraduates, which will then spread to postgraduate to early career researchers and to senior researchers. I’d love to see that. However, I am mindful that in a lot of cases it’s still very early days. There’s still a lot of work to do in that space, but I am still hopeful.”

When asked what the broader community can learn from the world’s oldest astronomers, Michael emphasised the ways Aboriginal people have used their sophisticated knowledge of planets and stars to inform their way of living.

For example, the ancient ancestors of Indigenous Australians used the “movement of constellations throughout the year to understand when to hunt for emu eggs.” He also outlined the strength of Indigenous methods of communicating such knowledge of astronomy over thousands of years orally and through paintings and ceremony.

Thousands of years ago, at least in western cultures, eclipses freaked people out. But Indigenous people knew what was going on and may have even recorded this knowledge in stone engravings in what is now called the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.”

Want to know more?

These courses are open to any academic or professional staff engaged in teaching and support for learning in the higher education sector. Explore ways to successfully engage with and integrate Indigenous perspectives into your approaches to teaching and learning within a Higher Education context. Find out more here.

Author: Credit to QUT Academy of Learning and Teaching


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