Big Interview: Alyce Lysaght.

It’s no secret Māori and Pasifika are underrepresented across the engineering industry. Despite being aware of this, it can be difficult to know where to learn more about the issue and how we can help bridge this gap. For Māori engineering students, it can be difficult to see how the values of te ao Māori can be integrated into the industry.

This month, Eloise Angus talks to Alyce Lysaght – a University of Canterbury engineering student exploring these issues in a new podcast series, Māori in Engineering.

Why did you create Māori in Engineering? 

I’ve learned there are amazing Māori in the engineering industry across Aotearoa, but there’s not really an accessible platform to learn about their journey, why they became who they are now and how they did it. 

The podcast is about showcasing Māori stories in the engineering world. I’m still learning. I’m not an expert in this field, but I’m motivated by setting an example for future tamariki and rangatahi.

I’m a big believer in leaving a place better than you’ve found it. If tamariki and rangatahi don’t see people like them in workplaces, what do they have to aspire to? You are what you see.

Why should people listen?

There aren’t enough Māori in the engineering world. I’ve shared kōrero with many others about how surprising this is, especially as our tīpuna were at the feet of engineering. Māori have a long history of ingenious innovations and utilising engineering principles. For example, the small wave-like pattern on the hull of a waka reduces rotating eddies to reduce the overall drag enabling the waka to go faster. It’s the sample principle as why golf balls have small indents – to make them travel further.

Our tīpuna knew the engineering principles to design waka this way, although they wouldn’t have called them kinetic energy – they had the principles, it wasn’t by accident.

The podcast isn’t a be-all-end-all solution to solve the underrepresentation of Māori in the engineering world. It’s a platform to shine a light on the amazing engineers in Aotearoa. And ultimately to inspire tauira Māori to pursue study and a career in engineering.

It’s also space for people to learn and to emphasise the importance of having Māori in engineering. Every two weeks, I’ll be sharing kōrero with leading Māori in the engineering world to discuss their own story and whakaaro.

If I don’t create the podcast, who else will?

Who should listen?

It’s for anyone! School-aged people, engineers, non-engineers, anyone who wants to listen.

Where did your drive for te reo Māori come from? 

I had only started my te reo Māori journey three years ago, at the beginning of my studies at the University of Canterbury. My Mum’s father, my grandfather, was raised in the 60s where there was a negative stigma in Aotearoa towards things like speaking te reo Māori. So I wasn’t exposed to te reo Māori growing up. Knowing that my grandfather spoke reo Māori as a child and lost it due to no fault of his own, put a fire in my belly to learn it myself.

I was first properly exposed to it when I was selected by the then-Mayor of Ashburton City Council, Donna Favel who selected me for The Tuia Kaupapa, a one-on-one mentorship programme held over one year that consists of regular wānanga held at marae around the motu. We’d share ideas and connect – it was a safe space to be exposed and learn te ao Māori. To this day, I still hold a place dear in my heart for that kaupapa and am still connected as a tuakana.

Why did you choose to study engineering?

This is a classic answer, but I always had an interest in physics and calculus during high school. I was intrigued and enjoyed learning how things worked and why. It was my physics teacher who mentioned I should look at engineering to my parents in a parent-teacher interview. After some research, I knew it was something I’d enjoy.

I remember looking around my university class and being surprised there weren’t more Māori studying environmental engineering, given the significance of te taiao in te ao Māori. It’s so important that Māori are in the seat talking and helping to plan for the future of the environment in Aotearoa for generations to come.

To come from both an engineering background and te ao Māori perspective when addressing the environment is powerful. But I get it; engineering study is complex – the workload is intense, and you have to develop a lot of technical skills in a short space of time. But with hard work, it’s possible.

I’m not someone to give up. I dig deep when I need to. I think we’ve all got that ability in us; we just need to have the confidence to find it. I was lucky I had a really strong support system around me in high school. My parents, too, are great role models. My Dad is even studying for his building apprenticeship at 53 years old!

My teachers had confidence in me; they believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. That’s what I try to do with my mentoring at ENG Me! – where I work as a volunteer mentor to first-year Māori engineering students. I try and give people the confidence to believe they can complete an engineering degree.

On the topic of diversity, you’re studying to be an engineer – a profession that’s still heavily male-dominated and lacks Māori representation. What has your university journey been like? Do you think things are getting better i.e. do you see more diversity coming through at a student level?

I’ve been very fortunate during my student journey at The University of Canterbury. I’ve had a strong network of support, freedom and opportunities to explore and make connections that align with my values. 

A few things support Māori students here at university, such as tautoko for first-year Māori engineering students through a kaupapa called EngMe – a by-student-for-student weekly mentoring session kaupapa. 

And the university Māori team are also active and always there to go to for tautoko (they’re also just all-around great people!). The only issue is the student needs to be proactive and reach out for support. Because engineering is such a full-on degree, there isn’t much capacity to actively reach out to support networks that encourage Māori in engineering. This is a space that could do with more work to tautoko tauira Māori throughout all years of engineering study, not just the first year.

There is very little Māori representation at university, but it’s getting there. As I compare stories that I’ve heard about how engineering was ten years ago to now – Āe, I believe things are slowly getting better. There are more females and slowly more tauira Māori beginning their university degree. However, as an example, I’m one of the handful of Māori in the final year of the Civil and Natural Resource degree. So there’s still a lot of work to be done. 

What difference do you think it would make to Aotearoa if we had more diversity within the engineering and architecture professions?

Making decisions with various perspectives enables a more sustainable solution for a diverse population and environment.

When there’s more diversity, more biases are covered. It’s not just about being diverse in the sense of having one Māori sitting at the table; it needs to go deeper than that. I learnt recently that a tane Māori and a wahine Māori have different perspectives of te ao Māori to each other, and perspectives also range with age, their upbringing, growing up in a te ao Māori space etc. So when professions have little or only one Māori providing a te ao Māori perspective, then it’s still going to lack a sense of diversity within that. 

There needs to be a deeper level of diversity to enable more sustainable and future-proof solutions for the diverse circumstances we’re facing. 

What more can we (the Diversity Agenda) and CEs of engineering and architecture firms do to encourage more young Māori to choose a career in engineering/architecture?

As a student, many things at the CE or Diversity Agenda level seem out of reach for us. But we also look up to what you’re doing. To avoid the ‘out of reach’ mentality, if students see themselves reflected within this level, it’ll help to bridge the gap. 

Continuing to showcase te ao Māori values within engineering, and Māori engineers that are relatable and practical will help. And emphasising that once Māori enter the workforce, they’ll be valued and their mahi fulfilling rather than their position tokenised.

And it’s important to be part of the conversation and be willing to learn. Listen and learn on the Māori in Engineering podcast! Understand that as consultants and engineers, we design and build things for everyone. We need diversity of thought and ideas. 

When you enter the workforce, what would you like to see firms do to show they genuinely value Te Ao Māori (in a way that avoids tokenism, but instead indicates genuine engagement and honour towards mātauranga Māori)?

Invest and empower their Māori engineers to be Māori. Invest and empower their engineers to learn te ao Māori values. Understand that we are all on our journey of te ao Māori; a lot of Māori engineers didn’t grow up on their whenua, with their reo and in te ao Māori – so lighten the expectation – we don’t know it all either. And I’d hope to see firms don’t rely on the Māori in the office to do the karakia before an event, but expect within the workforce that anyone can do it.

Investment and empowerment in all employees to learn Te Ao Māori values will show firms truly value Te Ao Māori. 

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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