University of Melbourne Magazine

Creating opportunities for Indigenous engineers

  • University of Melbourne alumnus and former Sinclair Knight Merz Chief Executive Officer Paul Dougas is heading up a new pathway program aiming to vastly improve opportunities for Indigenous engineering students and increase the number of Indigenous engineers working in Australia.

    Paul Dougas is Chair of the steering committee for the Indigenous Engineers: Partners for Pathways project, a nationwide initiative being led by the University of Melbourne thanks to a Commonwealth grant of $700,000. The project aims to create scholarships and devise strategies to promote pathways into engineering and remove barriers to entry for Indigenous and other students who do not have the STEM pre-requisites.

    Bachelor of Science (Geomatics) student Adam Pyke was this year awarded the inaugural scholarship thanks to the scheme.

    Professor Paul Dougas

    Professor Paul Dougas

    Professor Dougas said the Indigenous community has always been underrepresented in the engineering profession, a situation that has had negative consequences.

    “Earlier in my career I was aware of some of the failed attempts at Indigenous housing. Housing projects that had failed because they were built for the community, rather than involving and engaging them.” “This will be a perfect opportunity to hopefully get Indigenous engineers to work with their community to produce appropriate housing infrastructure rather than us imposing on them without letting them come up with the ideas.”

    The Indigenous Engineers: Partners for Pathways project brings together a range of stakeholders from the education and higher education sectors, as well as industry and professional bodies. The stakeholders are examining the blockages that are preventing Indigenous students from pursuing studies in engineering, with a view to devising ways of working around these barriers.

    He said that one of the key barriers was a lack of take-up of maths and science subjects among Indigenous school students.

    “It’s one thing to put a scholarship program in place, but to find the students to apply and take advantage of it is another.”

    Professor Dougas said that previous Indigenous scholarship programs had met with difficulties because little thought was put into working with Indigenous organisations to identify, encourage and develop students and offer them alternative means of meeting university entry requirements for engineering.

    “There is also an economic rationale for the industry in that we don’t have enough good professionals within engineering to satisfy demand, and Indigenous students are a source of engineering talent that we should be cultivating and developing.”

    Professor Dougas said that on a personal level, being involved in projects such as Indigenous Engineers had been immensely satisfying, and that after a wonderful career, he now had more time to give back to the community and the University of Melbourne.

    “To me it’s immensely satisfying to be able to assist the development of the future generation of professionals.”

    “It’s only a start. I don’t think one scholarship is anywhere near enough. We need to develop a pipeline to feed into the program, to get the messages out to students from the Indigenous community that engineering is a worthwhile career pathway.”

    The stakeholders in the Indigenous Engineers: Partners for Pathways project are now working together in preparation for a summit in mid 2015, to devise a program that will be rolled out across Australia.