Most teenage love stories do not involve raptors, but that is how it happened for one man whose passion became his career.
At age 15, Simon Cherriman fell in love watching a pair of eagles soaring above a treehouse he had just built.
Nicknamed ‘Eagle Man’, Mr Cherriman is now a researcher studying the breeding cycles of a wedge-tailed eagle population in the remote Gibson Desert of Western Australia.
He is monitoring the birth rates of the eagles and tagging juveniles with satellite transmitters to understand their movements.
As well as collecting data for his PhD, he shares his knowledge with local students and Indigenous rangers.
“My real passion is getting young people involved in science, being out in the bush and first-hand learning on country,” he said.
Mr Cherriman believes the majestic birds provide a window for children to see into the desert’s ecosystem.
He has joined forces with the Wiluna Remote Community School and its two-way science program, which builds on the students’ Aboriginal cultural knowledge to teach the Australian Curriculum.
Increasing school attendance through culture
The walls of the Wiluna school are painted with colourful bird murals and their comical faces create an inviting space for students.
Principal Adriano Truscott said birds were a way into the hearts and minds of the students who loved “going bush” and learning about animals and the cultural stories in which they feature.
“When we bring that into the classroom they become really interested,” Mr Truscott said.
The school also takes the classroom into the bush, which is having positive learning outcomes.
According to Mr Truscott, school attendance for some students has increased upwards of 50 per cent since the two-way program started.
When students are on country observing birds or weaving through the spinifex looking for animal tracks, there is a deep concentration and a calm in them.
Pairing science with Indigenous knowledge
A few hours east of Wiluna, in the red dirt country of the Martu people, the students joined Mr Cherriman for several days to learn about wedge-tailed eagles and other birds.
The excursion was part of the school’s science program, developed in partnership with the CSIRO.
Dr David Broun from the CSIRO’s Science Pathways for Indigenous Communities program said the aim was to connect Aboriginal knowledge with western science.
“A two-way science program starts with language and culture and that means children are experiencing success early and that their knowledge is valued,” Dr Broun said.
“That links to the curriculum and educational success.”
As well as learning from Mr Cherriman, the students spent time with Martu rangers like Rita Cutter, a local elder passionate about teaching.
“When we got the Indigenous Protected Area [recognition] I got serious to be out on country and teaching young people who one day might carry it on, must carry it on,” Ms Cutter said.
“We don’t want our stories, our knowledge of the country, to fade away; we want to be strong with Martu culture.”
Mr Truscott said increasing school attendance rates could be achieved through this intersection of Indigenous leadership and knowledge with the school curriculum.
“The two-way model builds on students’ Aboriginal knowledge, language, and culture to teach the Australian curriculum,” he said.
“For families to want to send their students to school they must trust the school and feel that it values their knowledge and culture.”
Rangers of the future
For the students, spending time on country with the rangers provides a chance to think about future vocations.
“There’s a huge opportunity for land management out here, and the Aboriginal people who live out here —whose country this belongs to —are the right people to be doing that,” Dr Braun said.
Student Nakisha Barnes spent the week with an iPad in hand creating a photo essay about eagles.
“I’m going to be a ranger like my nana, nana Rita,” she said.
“She tells the story about the eagles and the old stuff and what they used to do when they were kids.
“It’s fun to listen to and when we are old, we’ll be able to tell the kids too.”
Mr Cherriman has a similar hope for the future.
“I would love to be taken out on country by these Martu kids,” he said.
“They are the ones climbing trees and banding birds and showing me what’s changed.”
Topics: ornithology, birds, environmental-management, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, aboriginal, secondary-schools, public-schools, animal-science, environment-education, primary-schools, indigenous-culture, wiluna-6646, kalgoorlie-6430