For everyone First Nations peoples: the world’s first scientists

Photo: Daniel Boud

Overcoming a difficult childhood to become the 2020 Australian of the Year, Corey Tutt is now sharing his love of science with Indigenous children across Australia. 

When Corey Tutt visits schools with his 2020 Australian of the Year trophy, he sticks gaffa-tape over his name. The 29-yer-old Kamilaroi man from Dapto, in the Illawarra region, says this is “because I want to remove myself from the award and prove to kids they can be anything they put their minds to”.

Through his organisation, Deadly Science, Tutt has spent the past three years modelling this idea. Emerging from an itinerant childhood of trauma and disadvantage, Tutt is now CEO of a national organisation that takes donations of science resources and distributes them to Indigenous schoolkids around Australia.

“It’s a cliché, but you can’t be what you can’t see,” he says. “I get to inspire young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Deadly Science story has grown with my own experiences.

“When I was growing up, First Nations kids were often written off or told we’re only good at sport or art. My careers advisor told me to stick to a trade or I’ll end up in jail.”

He did neither, instead forging a path that would see him author three books, including the just-released The First Scientists: Deadly Inventions and Innovations from Australia’s First Peoples (Hardie Grant). Aboriginal people, he points out, were the first astronomers, invented the world’s first fish-traps, were forensic researchers, chemists and ecologists.

“We’re really under-represented in science,” he says. “Yet, we’re the world’s first scientists.”

Photos supplied

Currently working on two “curriculum-based books with an Indigenous flavour” for Australian Geographic, his own scientific yearnings were sated not through the classroom but through solitary explorations.

Growing up in a sole-parent family, and largely raised by his sister, “we moved around a lot and I was left alone much of the time. Tumby Bay [in South Australia] was like a desert – just a magical place to pick up and study lizards and snakes. At one stage, we lived near a huge reserve and my fascination with reptiles was my way of making friends. If you can pick up lizards you’re kind of one of the cool kids.”

When he turned eight, his grandfather gave him a second-hand copy of Harold Cogger’s Australian Reptiles In Colour, which he relished. “I knew every word.” A later encounter with an Aboriginal zookeeper sealed his inspiration to work with animals.

After graduating from school, he secured various jobs in farm work, wildlife and education – yet, when he phoned bush schools to enquire about their science resources, he discovered these were as scant as in his own schooling. “So I packed up all my books and sent them off.”

His precious Australian Reptiles in Colour was sent to an Aboriginal boy in the Northern Territory. “Later, his teachers emailed me to say he loved it.”

Deadly Science was born. Since, it has rapidly expanded, raising money to distribute thousands of books, telescopes and other resources to Indigenous schoolkids in remote and regional areas.

“Charlie didn’t know how to read but he loved dinosaurs to the point of infatuation. So I gave Charlie a dinosaur book, he learned how to read that, and I gave him another one. He ended up getting the Deadly Science medal last year.”

Corey Tutt

Prominent scientists including Professor Brian Cox and Doctor Karl Kruszelnicki have lent their support to the program, which has seen measurable impacts. In a recent survey, 90 schools supplied by Deadly Science showed a 25% increase in engagement in STEM-related subjects.

Tutt’s work promoting science among indigenous schoolchildren has won him CSIRO Indigenous STEM Champion 2019, AMP Tomorrow Maker 2019 and ABC Trailblazer 2019. He was a finalist of the 2020 Eureka prize as well as being appointed a ‘human rights hero’ by the Australian Human Rights Commission. In turn, Deadly Science has awarded 28 Deadly Junior Scientist Awards.

Among the beneficiaries is Charlie, a young kid from Robinson River. “His teacher approached me asking if I can help. Charlie didn’t know how to read but he loved dinosaurs to the point of infatuation. So I gave Charlie a dinosaur book, he learned how to read that, and I gave him another one. He ended up getting the Deadly Science medal last year.”

Another is Mariah, who “designed a recycle bot that ate plastic bottles and was powered by plastic. There’s such an authenticity and genius to that you end up being passionate about these kids. I gave her a robotics kit. She wasn’t a very good reader but had an incredible engineering brain.”

Deadly Science is currently undergoing a charity status application and welcomes approaches from regional and remote schools with more than 15% Indigenous student population. Tutt says he encourages informal contact. “Teachers reach out to us. It grows from there.”

Donors are also encouraged. “We need to give these children a stable and encouraging environment. We need to change the conversation so these kids can see themselves in the picture. I believe good science starts with you being a good person. I’m not a special person but I’ve had to overcome a lot of systemic racism, and I just want all kids to have equal education.”

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