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New Myrtle Rust Education App Empowers Rangatahi To Embrace Science

Students fully immersed in the E heke e Heka app (Photo/Supplied)

Scion has launched a new interactive learning app designed to empower rangatahi (young people) and communities with knowledge about myrtle rust.

Developed with a focus on accessibility and engagement, the ‘E heke e Heka!’ app combines innovative technology with culturally relevant content in both Te Reo Māori and English, for a diverse audience aged 12 and above.

Students from three kura (Whakarewarewa School, Te Rangihakahaka Centre for Science and Technology, and Rotorua Primary School - Pukeroa Oruawhata) were among the first rangatahi to download the app during a launch at Te Whare Nui o Tuteata in Rotorua this week.

Myrtle rust, an invasive fungal disease affecting indigenous and exotic plant species of the Myrtaceae family, poses a significant threat to New Zealand's ecosystems and biodiversity. Since its arrival in Aotearoa, New Zealand in 2017, science, research and kaitiakitanga approaches have sought to learn about the impacts some of our most iconic plants, such as pōhutakawa, face in the future. At the same time, myrtle rust scientific resources, particularly in Te Reo Māori, have not been widely accessible. Recognising this gap, a team at Scion led by Indigenous environmental researcher Katerina Pihera-Ridge, embarked on a mission to translate the scientific knowledge for communities, whānau and young people to engage through a unique digital platform.

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"We believe it's a fundamental right for all people, regardless of background, to access critical information about our environment," says Pihera-Ridge, who leads Scion’s Restoration, Protection and Mauri o Te Waonui a Tāne portfolio.

"This app bridges the gap between science and communities, offering a user-friendly platform that transforms learning into an interactive and immersive experience."

To complement the ‘E heke e Heka!’ app, Pihera-Ridge envisioned the development of ‘Mātaihia te heka’ Augmented Reality (AR) to provide users with a virtual window into the world of myrtle rust. By visualising the fungus on four different plant species, the AR feature enhances understanding and empowers users to identify and go on to monitor potential myrtles in their own surroundings as well as consider their own mātauranga tuku iho, or knowledge systems, alongside the science information.

"We wanted to create more than just an educational tool; we wanted to craft an experience that resonates with users on a personal level," explains Te Ao Māori Research Group Leader Sierra De La Croix.

“We thought really carefully about where young people go to learn so we could provide the information in a format that they are more likely to engage with. One young person told us the AR feature brought the ngahere to life.

"The app is structured as a story, complete with interactive activities that make learning about science informative, digestible and enjoyable."

Proof of its appeal came during early testing with young people who provided valuable feedback to the app’s development team, Kiwa Digital.

De La Croix says adults also enjoy ‘E heke e Heka!’, making it a fun activity for all the whānau.

A highlight for me was when we showed our project lead myrtle rust researcher Dr Michael Bartlett the AR component, which is a gamified activity to seek out and find infected leaves on the virtual branches. When Michael saw how closely representative the four different species looked when they are impacted by myrtle rust, he was fully engaged and had the time of his life using the app.

“If our experts in myrtle rust research think this is scientifically relevant and cool, then it tells me that it’s an effective tool.”

The significance of the app extends beyond its educational value; it’s a pivotal moment in the intersection of Indigenous knowledge and leadership with scientific inquiry and impact. Led by Māori voices and supported by scientific expertise, the project embodies a collaborative approach to knowledge sharing and environmental stewardship.

Myrtle rust researcher Dr Michael Bartlett presents to rangatahi at the app launch at Scion (Photo/Supplied)

"As Indigenous people, we have a unique perspective on our environment and a right and responsibility to protect it," says Pihera-Ridge. "This app provides increased accessibility to empower our rangatahi, Māori and community to be aware and informed as active explorers and kaitiaki.”

She says the development process was not without its challenges, but the team's unwavering dedication and the extra mile taken by Kiwa Digital drove the project to fruition. From simplifying complex scientific concepts to ensuring cultural considerations and benefits, all aspects of the app were meticulously crafted to resonate with its target audience.

"For us, this project is more than just an app. It shows what can be achieved through Māori-led approaches in collaboration with shared purpose," adds Pihera-Ridge.

"Engaging Māori with research and science, while respecting the values and knowledge they already have, can produce new methods, and outcomes. We hope that this app sparks curiosity and inspires the next generation of scientists and kaitiaki (guardians) who already have a connection with te taiao environment."

‘E heke e Heka!’ is available for download on the Apple and Android app stores. Mātaihia te heka - AR app is available on the Apple Store, inviting users of all ages to embark on a journey of discovery and learning.

The Patua te Tukumate Rāwaho (Myrtle Rust Busters) project is funded by the MBIE Unlocking Curious Minds fund.

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