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Tōnui Collab

The lack of diversity in the technology workforce is dismal in Aotearoa, and the Tairāwhiti is no different - only 1.9% of our technology workforce is Māori. With New Zealand’s tech sector one of the country’s biggest earners, contributing $12.7 billion to the economy in 2019 and predicted to be worth $16b by 2030, this is a worrying statistic.

If you have come across the passionate and enthusiastic team at Tōnui Collab, you will know that they are determined to disrupt this trend and are working to create opportunities for rangatahi Māori in Tairāwhiti to thrive in the sector.

Shanon O'Connor, Director of Tōnui Collab worked in Web Development and Information Systems in the early 2000s and talks about her sense of imposter syndrome during her tertiary study and also when entering the workforce. “There were not a lot of Māori in these spaces, I felt like I didn’t belong, that maybe this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing”.

After returning to the Tairāwhiti to retrain as a teacher, Shanon taught at local primary school Te Wharau for a few years before joining The Mind Lab - an Auckland-led enterprise that created digital learning workshops for children and a post-graduate programme for teachers across the country. In 2018 however The Mind Lab started closing their youth-focused labs across the country.

This was the impetus for Shanon to take on the challenge of creating an innovative bilingual learning space for rangatahi to explore not only digital tools but the diversity of STEMM (Science Technology Engineering Maths and Mātauranga) locally. In 2019 Tōnui Collab was established and a stellar line up of trustees appointed, with Glenis Philip Barbara, Edwina Ashwell, Isaac Hughes, and Alex Hawea working alongside Rena Kohere as Chair.

“We started to experiment with how to create digital learning experiences that celebrated and amplified local pūrākau. The response from students and teachers was positive - students demonstrated really rich understanding of the pūrākau and teachers were able to see how motivated their students were to share their learning using digital tools.”

At the heart of Tōnui Collab is the recognition that more than 50% of our population is Māori. Pūrākau now sit front and centre to the Tōnui approach, storytelling being “so intrinsic to being Māori” and the perfect way to bring not only local context but also a wealth of knowledge, matauranga Māori, into STEMM.

Kiri Wilson, Tōnui Collab EdTech says, “Learning the language of code and algorithm is familiar, we have code and algorithm within our whare tipuna..whakairo, tukutuku and kõwhaiwhai. While Digital Technologies can be intimidating this is a great place to explore and discover another strategy to retell our stories and ignite the best learning experience.”

Kiri shares her aspiration to have “the Reo for Digital Technologies become more fluent. Tauira will be confident in their learnings and comfortable to share with their taina.”

The team have worked with Iwi groups to envision how different pūrākau could inform the learning taking place in the lab. Over the past two years thousands of kids have learnt the stories of this place and used this new knowledge to develop computer games, map the path of Paikea and his arrival in Aotearoa, and design interactive digital artworks. Shanon says they have received generous support and guidance from Albie Gibson and his team at TROTAK and Te Manuhuia Paenga and her team at the Museum, “there is a wonderful community of educators in the Tairāwhiti providing our schools and kura with access to unique and rich learning opportunities”, expanding that, “STEMM learning is also a powerful medium for developing “resilience, collaborative learning and problem solving”.

Young people start making decisions about what they want to do in their lives at primary school, and from Year 9 they start making course selections. If they haven’t had exposure to STEMM, or the diversity of career opportunities available early on, they just aren’t going to feature in their options. Shanon is certain that this kind of exposure needs to happen early on and this she sees as the role of Tōnui in our community.

The kind of learning that goes on at Tōnui is problem-focused, which means that ‘failure’ happens as a matter of course - something to be celebrated as students learn to work and grow through them via a reflection process. This kind of learning creates critical and reflective thinkers, and forward planners. When we’re younger we’re more confident with taking risks but, as we get older we don’t want to be caught out not knowing stuff!

Tōnui also works on making the career opportunities that await down the track visible and relatable for both students and their whānau, as well as their teachers. It’s all about shifting the opportunities to where they are most needed.

Mac Burgess, Tōnui Collab EdTech says he loves seeing “the genuine excitement from the tamariki as we see them experience and do things they've never done before. I love seeing our tamariki have a go at, and thrive at things they've never dreamed would be an avenue for education. I also love that we bring big world tech and ideas down to accessible and bite sized workshops to inspire our tamariki with what they can make the world into, in years to come.”

Which is one of the reasons why Tōnui Collab has opted to respond as they have, to the loss of their portside premises in 2021. A major reason behind their decision to adopt a mobile strategy is to improve the accessibility of their services. Transport and travel time have been identified as significant barriers to the learning opportunities they offer, especially for whānau and kura up the coast. The requirement of Covid passports from parent helpers has further exacerbated the challenges schools face when heading out on excursions - ‘going mobile’ is a particularly timely move for Tōnui in 2022.

The team are particularly excited about the opportunity to take their work into new spaces - schools, kura, marae and other community spaces. They are also enthusiastic about changing the way they teach - day-long and multi-day Wānanga style sessions provide more time to introduce new concepts, embed Mātauranga, allow for exploration and the cycle of reflection and new learnings.

As of February 2022, the Tōnui Collab team will be available to schools, kura, Marae and other community groups to bring STEMM learning to the young people of the Tairāwhiti. The main thing they will require is space. Theirs is an exploration-based practice, so alongside laptops, their van will also be loaded up with hula hoops, balls, bits of paper and pencils. Learning about how computers work is just as likely to involve an obstacle course as it is a laptop!

As we were talking, Shanon reflected on how the measurement of impact has been such an enduring part of their journey. She talked about the immediate, frequent and easily perceptible impacts - the excitement on a young person’s face, and reports from whānau or teachers about a child that has been seemingly ‘awakened’ by their Tōnui experience. Shanon has also been able to witness the development of some kids who have been going to The Mind Lab and Tōnui over the course of four or five years.

In just two years they have worked with over 20,000 young people - some of these are obviously kids who have liked what they are doing and have kept coming back. Moana Kerr, Tōnui Collab Administrator says, “It is our hope that at least another 20,000 of our tamariki will have the opportunity to be awakened by Tōnui Collab over the next two years, no matter where they are in the motu.”

We’re inspired by this team of educators who continue to rise to the challenges they face, with the needs of our community and our young people front and centre of everything they do. They are an indispensible force here in the Tairāwhiti to ensure that science, technology and engineering are not only accessible and fun for our young people, but are present as a viable and achievable career for them in the future.

* If you’re interested in engaging the Tōnui team this year, check them out at or


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