Michael Walker went to university in the 1970s he could count the number of fellow Maori studying science on one hand.
As the son of educationists Ranginui and Deidre Walker, he felt comfortable in the academic environment. But few other Maori and Pacific Island students, whatever their field of study, could cope with university life.
"We used to lose two-thirds of our Maori and Pacific students in the first six weeks."
Professor Walker has gone on to a stellar research career in Auckland University's school of biological sciences, work he mixes these days with his role as co-director of Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, the Maori centre for research excellence.
Maori are not only entering our universities in record numbers, they are graduating and going on to post-graduate qualifications before making their mark in the real world. The growing number with science qualifications are inspiring young Maori to think about science as a career option, at the same time injecting a Maori dimension to scientific research.
Nga Pae represents the tertiary end of initiatives at all levels of schooling to raise Maori achievement. They seem to be working.
Retention rates at secondary school are improving, with more Maori students lasting through to the end of year 13.
The number of Maori school leavers qualified to attend university rose from 14,162 in 2002 to 22,084 in 2007, or from 27 per cent to 39 per cent of Maori school leavers.
Nearly one in five Maori are going on to tertiary studies, twice the rate of Pakeha school leavers.
The numbers graduating and going on to post-graduate university studies are soaring (see factbox).
"We are starting to see not just the odd person that gets to the top but a number of Maori scientists with international reputations and people who've just finished PhDs finding their way," says Walker. "So we have a continuous line between people starting PhDs through to senior scientists, which we haven't had before.
"Pretty well all these people are contibuting back to the nation and to Maori development in some way, which in turn has the ability to inspire younger Maori students."
Nga Pae's services include mentoring and support for students who may be isolated in some courses, training workshops, research funding and grants and a knowledge exchange programme. Major funder the Tertiary Education Commission contributes about $5 million annually.
In 2002, Nga Pae set a target of having 500 Maori PhDs within five years and comfortably beat the deadline.
If this represents a turnaround in Maori educational achievement, the tide has some way to run. The drop-out rate for Maori at university, while improving, remains stubbornly high at nearly 30 per cent, some 10 points higher than the rate for all students. At post-graduate level, the pass rate drops to about 5 per cent of all who gain qualifications. And the Maori aversion to science and technology studies at school continues to show up at tertiary level. Of the nearly 84,000 Maori enrolled in tertiary studies in 2007, only 1.7 per cent (1412) were taking science courses. More than half were in studies classified as "society and culture" or "management and commerce".
Walker says the surge in Maori undertaking tertiary education is impressive but growth has been more significant in wananga than universities. Science in particular has tended to be under-represented.
Just 120 Maori graduated in natural or physical sciences in 2007, 5.5 per cent of all science graduates.
Former secondary school science teacher Liz McKinley, of Auckland University's education faculty, says Maori students tend to view science as "hard, boring and alienating".
"We can't do much about the hardness but we can do a lot about the boredom and the alienation."
Associate Professor McKinley chairs the Starpath project, dedicated to helping more "underachieving" school students get to university. She says there's room for schools to improve their guidance systems to ease the path from school to university. With the NCEA and a broader curriculum, students have been tempted to pursue easy credits or unit standards which don't meet the entry requirements for university courses.
Another way to switch Maori children on to science, says Walker, is to point to the considerable achievements of Maori scientists, and research which foots it on the world stage. He cites Shane Wright's 2006 breakthrough in understanding greater diversity of life in warmer climates and Ross Ihaka's role in the 1990s in developing the "R" statistical and graphics software system which is used globally. Walker himself is internationally known for his research into how birds, fish and other animals navigate using the earth's magnetic field. "There's a huge intellectual opportunity for the nation in investing in Maori and Pacific students."
One of Nga Pae's approaches is to send post-graduate students back to school to show students how far they can go. Another is to involve school students in research projects run by Maori scientists and funded by Nga Pae.
McKinley agrees that making science real is the key - "science which meets the needs of the Maori community and gets kids and schools involved. That needs to happen to help our kids get over the alienation.
"Some things we know do work, particularly in literacy and numeracy. We have some ideas to extend that to science but we need the funding and resources to go forward, and that takes political will."
At a function marking the progress made, Walker's father, Ranginui, recalled how Maori and Pacific students suddenly "switched on" when he introduced Polynesian navigation to anthropology lectures. Incorporating a Maori worldview and cultural perspectives "engages Maori in the academia from which we've been withdrawn for too long."
*14,508 Maori were undertaking degrees in 2007, up 12.1 per cent in seven years.
*The 2250 Maori who completed bachelors degrees in 2006 represented 10.7 per cent of all bachelor graduates.
*The percentage of Maori holding a bachelors degree or higher qualification has climbed from 2 per cent in 1997 to 7.1 per cent in 2007.
*The number of Maori undertaking PhDs has risen nearly 50 per cent, from 211 in 2000 to 308 in 2007.
In his work at Landcare Research, Dr Ataria says he feels an obligation to give something back to the Maori community who supported him through his education, which culminated with his PhD in 2001.
Since 2005 Ataria has worked with local Maori researching contamination in the Napier estuary, a traditional food source.
The project began with funding from Nga Pae o te Maramatanga but further research into stormwater has won funding from the Foundation for Research Science and Technology. Ataria brought kaitiakitanga (sustainability and guardianship) and other Maori protocol principles to the project and engaged local school students to help.
"The students who came to the estuary had 101 things they would rather be doing. I told them to put their cellphones in the car and take off their shoes and we waded into the mud and caught a whole lot of fish.
"They just loved it, their whole attitude [towards science] changed in two hours.
"Seeing Maori scientists, and seeing Maori processes in what we do, is an eye-opener for these kids."
He says the Maori world view, and understanding of how nature works, has applications for Western science.
He has just returned from several months at Trent University in Ontario, looking into the effects of nanomaterials on fish development. Other current projects include the pesticide 1080 and pollution in the Mataura River in Southland.
Physics studies at Waikato University led Dr Turuwhenua to focus on visual optics. Now he is working on a "virtual eye" computer model which promises to become an invaluable aid for surgeons aiming to correct eye problems including blurred and distorted vision in adults and children.
The project is trying to mimic the optics of the eye "to develop an eye that could possibly see what a person sees". It is one of several long-term projects to model the organs of the body at Auckland University's bioengineering institute.
Dr Turuwhenua joined the institute after completing his PhD. He says the merging of biology and engineering and the calibre of the scientists opened his eyes to the variety of avenues which science subjects can be applied to.
"There are so many opportunities to do things that are not just chemistry, physics or maths - things that your average Maori student might not be aware of."
Like Ataria, he says he feels an obligation to help get more Maori students through to post-graduate level while building his own research career.
As lead researcher on a project to rehabilitate a contaminated waste site at Kawerau, Dr Hikuroa has sought to integrate indigenous knowledge with scientific principles. The project, he says, aims to restore the mauri (life force) of the land, which may seem "chalk and cheese" to a scientific explanation of contamination. He says being a Maori helps in understanding inter-relationships "instead of looking at everything in silos".
The project began 18 months ago with funding from Nga Pae.By Geoff Cumming Email Geoff