• iceberg
  • boy with flowers
  • checking water quality
  • planet eclipse
  • solarsystem model
  • rangitoto trees
  • kids with test tubes
  • kids with earth
  • snowy mountains
  • teens in physics class
  • Rainbow Clouds

    Refraction and diffraction of light through ice crystals in the clouds

  • Philippa On The Ice

    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher


Tikanga up your science

Teaching with tikanga can provide our students with different and interesting ways of looking at science challenges, writes GEORGIA BELL.

Weaving smallThis article first appeared on the #scichatNZ blog – read the original version here.

Customs provide us with a framework for understanding the world around us. Customs help us to interact with people and the environment, provide us with a window into cultures and, thus, invite us to new ways of thinking. In Māoridom, we call these customs tikanga. For me, tikanga are a series of guidelines on how to treat people, how to be a productive person, and how to optimise the health of our people and land.

I took part in the recent #scichatNZ as introduced by @SciencehubNZ. Being passionate about Māoritanga and science, naturally I was elated to engage in conversations around cultural context within science.

As a disclaimer, I am not a school teacher, however I am involved in science wānanga and I work part-time at the New Zealand Marine Science Centre. I am an MSc student in the Department of Marine Biology, University of Otago. My tribal affiliations are Ngāti Marutuahu and Ngāti Maniapoto.

Throughout my studies I have become very passionate about the education of our young people, as I often reflect on my own educational experiences and how that can be used to improve those of the next generation. I believe that the use of tikanga in classes can be the ‘golden ticket’, as this is what encouraged me to fully engage with my learning at a university level. It is important to understand the reality of what we were learning in the classroom as well as a perspective of what science might look like in the real world.

Our tupuna (ancestors) were very in tune with their environment and their analysis and observations built tikanga. Why is it tapu (an activity or area requiring extra care and precautions) or forbidden for menstruating wahine to collect seafood? Because back in their time they found that the presence of blood in the water could potentially attract sharks and thus you would become dinner! Most aspects of tapu were practical like this example, but commonly spiritual connotations were added – perhaps to really scare us.

In my experiences in the science world, tikanga was often challenged, in particular tapu. When I was working in a cancer immunology lab I processed blood from people with colorectal cancer. Intrinsically, it was important to treat the samples with extra care out of respect for the patients (wouldn’t want to ask for another sample!), but also to protect myself working with samples that could have contained hepatitis or HIV. For me, this was a clear example of how tikanga such as tapu can be modernised in today’s society.

One could spend a very long time discussing all the aspects of tikanga, their origins and their meanings, due to their complexity and malleability to all areas of life. It is best to experience scenarios where tikanga play a big role, such as a hui at a marae or at wānanga. These experiences may be intimidating for some at first, but after a while you will get a feel for what these customs mean and how they are put into practice.

Other people may also have their own interpretations on aspects of tikanga, but essentially their underlying meanings will still be maintained. In the rest of this post I will interpret some common tikanga within the context of science and include some explanations and examples:


These concepts embody relationships with people and our surroundings. In an environmental field this aspect can be applied to the context of both macro and micro levels. For example, discharging treated waste leads to hypoxic conditions in coastal systems, this can cause damage to eels whilst an influx of nutrients can potentially induce toxic algal blooms.

Within the field of immunology, working out the lineage of individual immune cell types is a good analogy of whakapapa links. I always tell people that if they are capable of figuring out the link between themselves and their fifth cousin, then they can understand the pathways required for the generation of a macrophage.

Whakawhanaungatanga can also be translated as networking. Good scientists network to get help for research collaborations; sometimes this whakawhanaungatanga will spread far and wide to the people who live on the other side of the world! It takes a collaboration of people to run a marae, just like it does to drive good research!


This is commonly translated as guardianship. We often think about looking after our land and people with this term, but we need to make sure that we are catering to all the other species that coinhabit the world. Consideration of kaitiakitanga is currently occurring with research on the effects of climate change on different organisms. The aim of this research is to determine whether these species will cope with climate change and, if not, what could we possibly to facilitate coping mechanisms.

Our tupuna would put rahui (gathering bans) on shellfish beds that had been over harvested. The rahui would allow for foodstocks to replenish, thus ensuring that there were plentiful resources for future generations.


This is interpreted as showing generosity and care for others. Manaakitanga is not only necessarily for people and things that are ‘here and now’ but for those in the future too. If all our resources are spent and there is no land for our future generations, how will they survive?

I like to think about manaakitanga in respects to passing on science knowledge to our future generations. Are we providing our young leaders with the right tools and resources to become future scientists themselves? And do they have the fundamental understanding of the challenges that we have come to?

Something for our students to think about is: what are the science questions that we need to answer to ensure a better life for our kids, and for their kids?


This refers to the need to bring unity and to work collectively. People from Kotahitanga Marae in Otorohanga explain that kotahitanga means the bringing together of people from all different walks of life with different skills and different opinions. We don’t have to be of the same construct, but we might have similar agenda.

In my postgraduate diploma studies we were told by our then head of department (Frank Griffin) that he believed it was important for him to encourage a range of people from different cultures to work in the department. Why? Because we all have very different sets of lenses through which we see the world. Many hands make light work, and many minds with different lenses allow for a more complex understanding of research questions … perhaps it is the customs of other cultures that allow our differences.

Some points for our science students to think about with regards to kotahitanga:

  • Everyone has a different role in a research group, just like on the marae or in your family home
  • Embrace the differences in the way your peers see and understand things, as they may be adding a deeper and more complex understanding of the research questions.


This means leadership and chieftainship. It is important that we prime our young people in a way that is empowering (and not intimidating) to be leaders. They can show rangatiratanga at any stage of life by doing things that empower and care for others.

I like to encourage students to take home what they have learnt from wānanga and pass it on to their families, friends and Iwi.

To conclude, why might it be important to utilise these concepts in a science context? I feel that not only do these aspects give students inspiration to do science, a sense of belonging and connectivity, but also provide some awesome guidelines for making wicked scientists! I like to think that teaching with tikanga primes these young minds with different and innovative ways of seeing science challenges.

Mauri ora ki a tātou!

For further reading on tikanga check out:

Tikanga Maori: Living by Maori Values. Sir Sidney (Hirini) Moko Haerewa Mead (book)

Tikanga Māori Pre-1840 – by Timoti Gallagher (electronic article)

Find the Storify of the chat ‘What contexts from Te Ao Maori (and others) can we use for teaching science’ here.

-          Georgia Bell (Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Maru, Hauraki) has recently completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Science in Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Otago.

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