Kids become myrtle rust destroyers with new game

A pair of apps aims to create a new crop of kaitiaki with the help of augmented reality.

This is an excerpt from our weekly environmental newsletter, Future Proof. Register here.

Seen through the iPad screen, a branch of a pōhutukawa tree is growing through the carpet of the meeting room floor. I walked around the tree, aiming the screen to look at all corners of the leaves, looking for telltale yellow spots. iPad sounds: infection found!

I’m testing a new augmented reality app called Mātaihia te heka, which turns learning about myrtle rust into a game for rangatahi (young people).

Myrtle rust is a nasty fungal pathogen that arrived on New Zealand shores in 2017, having broken out across the Tasman from Australia. It infects plants in the myrtle family, like our iconic pōhutukawa, killing young shoots and leaves.

I’ve spent the last few months thinking a lot about myrtle rust for an upcoming story. I expected to spend a lot of time inspecting the trees – not the virtual ones! But New Zealand’s rust response is characterized by creative problem-solving, I learned, and is filled with positive examples of partnerships between te ao Māori and science – like a pair of new applications.

Led by the Scion te ao Māori team, the twin apps aim to reach rangatahi by providing information in “an engaging, engaging, fun way that’s relevant to them”, says Taiāwhio Waipoua-Bryers, research assistant.

‘E heke e Heka!’, available in both English and Te Reo Māori, takes the user on an interactive hīkoi (walk) through the ngahere (forest) with the native Tiki stick insect as a guide.

Designed as a story and with games embedded along the way, the app “bridges the gap between science and communities,” says Katerina Pihera-Ridge, an Indigenous environmental researcher who led the project.

Pihera-Ridge also envisioned a second gaming component that brings the ngahere to life with augmented reality – and here comes the second app, Mātaihia te heka.

Left: say ‘E heke e Heka!’ application; right: a screenshot from the augmented reality game (Images: Scion / Kiwa Digital)

The apps provide “a gateway to the world of science, creating future scientists,” says Waipoua-Bryers. Pihera-Ridge sees it as a way to “empower rangatahi, Māori and our community to be aware and informed as active explorers and kaitiaki”. Te Piataaio Raroa, another research assistant, notes that the approach encourages users to apply their own methods of observation, including maramata (the Māori lunar calendar).

A previous test session proved successful: “Rangatahi came to the session knowing nothing about myrtle rust, then left teaching us about myrtle rust!” says Raroa. A nine-year-old tester even reported finding myrtle rust in real life, on a pōhutukawa tree.

At a launch yesterday, students of the three courses were the first to play the final product. “We hope this app will spark curiosity and inspire the next generation of scientists and kaitiaki (caregivers) who already have a connection to the taiao environment,” says Pihera-Ridge.

Heke and Heka! is available for free on both Android and iOS. Mātaihia te heka is also free and available on iOS.

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