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Opening doors . . .

Shanon's enthusiasm is infectious and there is a clear domino effect happening already with young Tōnui alumni actively exploring their options for the future. She loves nothing more than seeing a spark in the eyes of someone who has just mastered something new.

 “Tōnui is often filled with looks and sounds of awe and wonder,” she says.

Tōnui (meaning “to thrive”) is snuggled comfortably in the Inner Harbour, overlooking the Waka Hourua Tairāwhiti, among other vessels coming and going. It creates unique STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) learning opportunities for the community. People of all ages can explore the diversity of STEM through innovative, collaborative workshops that range from animation to game development, digital art to augmented reality, virtual reality, electronic engineering, prototyping 3D modelling, machine learning and more.

Her vision, and that of the trust behind Tōnui, is simple — to open doors of opportunity through learning for rangatahi of Tairāwhiti.

 “We want them to develop skills and capabilities that align with the demands of the contemporary world, and particularly in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths).

“There is a lack of diversity across the STEM fields,” says Shanon. 

“Too few women and too few Māori are pursuing those careers. Technology, which plays a role across STEM, is moving rapidly and our education system cannot keep up, nor can the educators in it.”

In Aotearoa just 1.6 percent of the Māori workforce are in tech. Te Tairāwhiti is 50.3 percent  Māori and yet just 0.9 percent of Māori are in tech.

“I founded Tōnui  Collab with aspirations to create STEM learning opportunities for our tamariki that celebrated Te Ao Māori through a STEM lens,” says Shanon. 

“This learning is beneficial to every learner — however, grounding the learning with storytelling is a way of amplifying our history, providing meaningful context to the learning and an authentic framework for the learner to create and evaluate their solutions.”

Shanon (nee Milner) is of Ngāti Porou and Ngai Tahu. She grew up in Gisborne, doing her local schooling through Kaiti, Te Wharau, Ilminster and Gisborne Girls' High School, followed by Tairāwhiti Polytechnic and finally Victoria University in Wellington for computer science. She worked for Deloitte in website and web content management which she continued when she moved back to Gisborne 15 years ago. 

Driven by seeing the impact good teaching had on her children and those of her friends, she retrained as a teacher. 

“I wanted to do something meaningful,” she says. 

She took it to another level five years ago with a post-graduate certificate in digital and collaborative learning. Her studies were done through The Mind Lab — a national provider of digital education for children and teachers. 

“I thought at the time the place was awesome and when the opportunity arose for me to join The Mind Lab team as an ed-tech educator I jumped at it . . . I think it was a mash-up of my former roles in tech and education.” 

Last year she completed her masters in contemporary education with a focus on raising the digital confidence and capabilities of kōhine (young women) Māori through the adoption and adaptation of a global app development challenge.

Shanon and the Technovation Tairāwhiti team worked alongside 120 kōhine Māori over two years in a 12-week app development challenge. 

“It was a global initiative but very localised,” she says. 

“Teams of young women identified a community problem and developed an app solution. They worked the full design process, from problem identification, market research and prototyping, through to branding and pitching. Their solutions were so relevant.”

They developed a job app that connected pakeke (elders) with rangatahi to take care of household chores, another that students populated with voice recordings of their names so teachers could learn to pronounce their names correctly, one for reporting/re-homing stray animals, and another for seed-sharing that also included information about plants — their names, desired growing conditions, healing properties and sources for collecting and obtaining seeds.

In 2021, Shanon was selected as one of 88 from across the globe to be part of Homeward Bound — a worldwide initiative to increase the influence and impact of women with a STEM background leading the decision-making that shapes the future of our planet. 

“It is a real privilege to be chosen and I hope that I can use this opportunity for increasing opportunity for people in our region and in this instance, specifically wahine (women) Māori.”

Tōnui Collab was born from The Mind Lab and when the organisation opted to close its Gisborne operation, Shanon was quick to snap it up.  

“We were in a unique position in that ECT (now Trust Tairāwhiti) had fully funded The Mind Lab for four-and-a-half years with one-and-a-half left in the funding contract. We re-negotiated the contract so that The Mind Lab could end their contract early, and at the same time Tōnui Collab could benefit from the existing contract conditions.”

She founded the organisation in 2019, transitioning it to a charitable trust in 2020. Since then she has been unapologetically focused on meeting the STEM education needs of Te Tairāwhiti.

It is a tight team at the harbourside “collab”, delivering in te reo Māori and English, but Shanon is always looking for ways to get more out into the community. As it is, schools from all over the rohe head to Tōnui, with interested parents and grandparents often along for the ride. It costs just $1 per child per hour. 

“We keep these costs low because we want to ensure there are no barriers to access.”

She worries there is a perception that youngsters have to leave Tairāwhiti to succeed. 

“I think it is great if you want to leave, to explore, to take up other opportunities . . . but you shouldn't need to. There are growing opportunities to thrive in STEM in Tairāwhiti. I am a parent of four and grandmother of one — I want my uri (descendants) to have options. I love Te Tairāwhiti and I believe our young people should have the option to thrive here.”

The region needs to prepare for a more diverse economy.

“We need to think about and plan for a future where Tairāwhiti is thriving in tech. It is a weightless export and creates high-value jobs . . . if we have the skills to fill them.”

As a small region, many schools do not have some of the infrastructure that larger regions have, nor the capacity to attract highly-specialised education across these fields. 

“We need to think creatively and collaboratively; we need to design solutions that meet the needs of our community; partnering across schools and kura to create rich and diverse learning opportunities for our young people.

“Last week we supported Ko Maui Hangarau, the Aotearoa-wide initiative created by Lee Timutimu to inspire rangatahi in tech. There were over 400 rangatahi in a space together, getting excited about what a future in tech could look like and of the five kaikorero, two came from Te Tairāwhiti — this shows our rangatahi what is possible!”

And Shanon O'Connor is more than happy to be one of the people pushing for that.

Shanon O'Connor and rangatahi at Tōnui Collab overlooking the Inner Harbour. 8Picture by Rebecca Grunwell

  1. Hillary Gregory, Tasman says:

    Fabulous article Diana and Shanon.