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Education Training, Indigenous

Soap made using ingredients from Country. Tested using Merck technology.

Merck 4 mins read
Soap-making with DeadlyLabs in the classroom (credit: DeadlyScience/Merck)

Soap made using ingredients from Country. Tested using Merck technology.

Merck travelled to the Northern Territory with the DeadlyScience team to pilot the first DeadlyLabs kit. It’s a project led by Indigenous Elders in the Robinson River region to share their knowledge, their ideas, and their care for the community.

“It was an amazing experience for staff, students, and community. Everyone is still talking about it,” says Chris Errington from Robinson River School.

That’s the feedback from local learners and teachers in rural Northern Territory who road-tested a new science kit in May, which explores the chemistry of soap-making and hygiene with activities and experiments based in Indigenous science.

DeadlyLabs – a new project from DeadlyScience, supported by Merck, a leading science and technology company, is designed to merge cultural knowledge and learning on Country with hands-on experiments in the classroom.

About 50 students across three classes from Robinson River School combined traditional knowledge with classroom-safe science to make soap and test its ability to extradite bacteria from participants’ hands. They were joined by Aunties, Elders, rangers and virtually the whole township in an engaging and fun experience that saw students and community members teaching each other.

A film crew recorded the lessons so that Robinson River students can demonstrate soap-making and testing experiments to schools like theirs around Australia.

Garawa and Gunindiri Elders led the development of the pilot DeadlyLabs kit to pass down their knowledge of the value of cleanliness. University of Sydney chemist and science communicator Associate Professor Alice Motion provided the classroom chemistry expertise. It’s the first in a series of kits, with future packages exploring physics, biology, and more.

“The feedback from the Robinson River community was so warm and encouraging,” says DeadlyScience founder and proud Kamilaroi man Adjunct Associate Professor Corey Tutt OAM. “They’re so proud to be leading this pilot program, knowing that DeadlyLabs will become a kit that other communities can use, incorporating their own traditional knowledge.”

Learning on Country and in the classroom

Learners collected the leaves of Dumbuyumbu, the Garrwa language word for Australian sandalwood (Santalum lanceolatum), a key ingredient for soap-making. Dumbuyumbu leaves were sought from 3 different locations on Country, with Elders sharing their knowledge of finding and identifying the leaves, smelling and examining them, taking the leaves sustainably, and looking after the environment they grow in.

Back in the classroom, students made soap with beeswax, a soap base, and their collected leaves. Then they put their soap to the test, using Coli-Count™ kits provided by Merck as part of their support for DeadlyLabs, to check the levels of bacteria remaining after handwashing using their soap, and compared it to bacteria on unwashed hands, water rinsed hands, and hands washed with conventional soap.

“At Merck, we’re so delighted with the success of the DeadlyLabs pilot science experiment,” says Rebecca Lee, Managing Director Life Science and Country Speaker, Merck ANZ.

“We’ve heard that the learners want to know when we’re coming back and what they can do next. This is particularly meaningful to us as we celebrate the launch of our Merck ANZ Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan.”

Beyond Robinson River

The DeadlyScience team are refining the kit’s lesson plans and worksheets, drawing on feedback from Robinson River School, and producing videos that demonstrate the experiments and explain the science.

The team will then develop systems to produce, store and distribute kits to other remote communities who can apply the kit with their own traditional knowledge and the local equivalent of Dumbuyumbu.

“The teachers told us that remote students want to get away from pencils and paper and get on Country,” says Corey. “DeadlyLabs provides that hook, which is a huge attraction to remote school students.”

This first kit gives students insights into the chemistry of everyday life, as well as experience with lab safety, weighing and measuring materials, and gathering and recording data, all of which aligns with Australian curriculum requirements.

In the future, people and organisations will be able to sponsor sending kits to more communities.

“The development of the kit, which Merck has sponsored, is just the beginning,” says Rebecca. “We want to see more of corporate Australia, government organisations, the education sector, and people from all walks of life get behind DeadlyLabs and the broader work of DeadlyScience.”

About DeadlyScience

DeadlyScience was founded in 2019 by proud Kamilaroi man Adjunct Associate Professor Corey Tutt OAM to empower and engage young Indigenous children with science and provide science resources to remote schools in Australia. To date, DeadlyScience has delivered more than 25,000 books, 700 telescopes and other learning tools to students in remote communities. Visit: deadlyscience.org.au

About Merck

Merck, a leading science and technology company, operates across life science, healthcare and electronics. Around 60,000 employees work to make a positive difference to millions of people’s lives every day by creating more joyful and sustainable ways to live. From advancing gene editing technologies and discovering unique ways to treat the most challenging diseases to enabling the intelligence of devices – the company is everywhere. In 2021, Merck generated sales of € 19.7 billion in 66 countries.

Scientific exploration and responsible entrepreneurship have been key to Merck’s technological and scientific advances. This is how Merck has thrived since its founding in 1668. The founding family remains the majority owner of the publicly listed company. Merck holds the global rights to the Merck name and brand. The only exceptions are the United States and Canada, where the business sectors of Merck operate as MilliporeSigma in life science, EMD Serono in healthcare, and EMD Electronics in electronics.


Contact details:

For DeadlyScience: Tom Gordon, 0417 454 673 or tom.gordon@deadlyscience.org.au

For Merck: Tanya Ha, 0404 083 863 or tanya@scienceinpublic.com.au

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