Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.
Falling rocks, earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding are just some of the dangers that rangatahi (youth) have been exploring in Tairāwhiti (Gisborne region).
Tauira (students) and kaiako (teachers) at 19 intermediate schools from Gisborne to the East Cape have been unearthing mōrearea o Papatūānuku (natural hazards) and learning how to reduce these impacts, as part of a series of three-day wānanga or ‘science camps’ aiming to boost community resilience.
Each wānanga is run by GNS Science Te Pū Ao with He Oranga mō Ngā Uri Tuku Iho Trust and the Joint Centre for Disaster Research. They combine real-time observations, area-specific geological knowledge and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) through field trips and hands-on challenges.
“The main point of this is to empower communities to understand the risks of, and to prepare for, the hazards most likely to affect them,” explains Julian Thomson at GNS Science, who co-led the sessions with colleague Mike Page. “This is why we’ve tailored the science to each area, included local pūrakau (ancestral stories) and involved students and teachers as community connectors.”
Mike adds, “I have been working with these communities for decades and their valuable knowledge has helped me with my natural hazards research, so now it’s my turn to support them.”
Each wānanga took place in one of four locations – Gisborne, Te Karaka, Tolaga Bay, and Ruatoria with Te Araroa.
In Ruatoria and Te Araroa, Mike and Julian were joined by Emily Campbell (Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga a Mate) at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research.
“I whakapapa [have family ties] to this place so I jumped at the chance to help out,” she says, “It’s also great to be able to show the kids that anyone can be a scientist.”
The team took tauira and kaiako to the awa (river) Tapuaeroa, where they investigated its features – including depth, width and boulder size – to find out how it has changed over time.
Tairāwhiti has been severely affected by floods, so knowledge about how rivers behave can help locals ensure their homes are better protected against future floods.
“I really liked learning the story about where the rocks came from and why they are the shapes and colours they are,” says Bowdie, 13, from at Te Waha o Rerekohu Area School.
The group also analysed a section of river bank with exposed layers of soil and rock. One student spotted a vital clue in pulling together the river’s story: a fencepost in one of the layers.
Using the students' observations, Julian and Mike deduced that native forest had been cleared for farmland, resulting in hill erosion, slips and landslides.
“What we do with the land changes the river,” Mike says. “More trees mean less erosion and fewer rocks going into the river, so if this [newly planted] pine forest stays we’d expect to see a deeper riverbed in 100 years.”
The group then investigated a second hazard: falling rocks. Earthquakes can shake boulders loose from hills or cliff faces, which can then roll into and damage houses.
Julian, Mike and Emily took everyone to a sloping paddock beneath a bluff in Te Araroa, where they all counted and measured the boulders that had fallen from the bluff.
They found larger boulders at the top and smaller boulders closer to the bottom of the paddock, where there are houses. This means that large boulders are unlikely to hit the houses at the bottom, because they tend to stay where they land, but smaller ones could easily roll downhill and are a risk.
Afterwards, the tauira teamed up in small groups for a hands-on ‘hazard protection challenge’. After building a model of the paddock, the challenge was to design and construct a barrier to protect the houses from the boulders, which Julian and Mike tested realistically using actual rocks.
“I really liked this activity because it’s fun and I liked making and testing the design,” says Awanui, 12, at Te Waha o Rerekohu Area School.
“That was definitely my favourite part because it was challenging and creative,” adds Te Ariki, 12, at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori O Te Waiū O Ngāti Porou.
Tauira in other regions had similar design challenges, such as creating a sea wall to protect against king tides and tsunamis, or a stop-bank to contain river flooding.
The students then visited real-life versions of the barriers in their challenge, to see what techniques were actually used and whether they worked – such as the concrete wall on Gisborne’s Wainui Beach, worn away by the very waves it is protecting against.
“It’s been really valuable for the schools to have this opportunity to work together,” says Pia Pohatu, Researcher for He Oranga mō Ngā Uri Tuku Iho Trust. “I particularly liked how the students were asking on the first day if others were coming back the next day.”
“It’s been so cool to see the kids really thinking about things, asking questions and solving problems,” adds Wayne Abraham, Kaiako at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Kawakawa Mai Tawhiti. “I’ve also personally enjoyed learning about the science behind places that are right on our doorstep.”
Te Kura o Mōrearea o Papatūānuku o Te Tairāwhiti is run by GNS Science Te Pū Ao in partnership with He Oranga mō Ngā Uri Tuku Iho Trust and the Joint Centre for Disaster Research, with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.