A Life Lived Alongside Brush Turkeys, Whipbirds – and Academics
By Erica Cervini
A fascination with ecology has led Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles to devote her life to doing ground-breaking research in environmental education and in improving ecological literacy in schools.
As a child, Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles built forts and rode her bike to school every day. She would often travel 10 kilometres from her home to explore the natural environment of her small coal mining town of Tieri in Central-West Queensland.
“While my dad and bothers were coal mining, I guess I had this real freedom and independence in the Australian bush,” says Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, the Dean and Head of the School of Education at Southern Cross University.
Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles’ fascination with ecology led her to apply for her a secondary school exchange program to Alice Springs. She lived on a farm for several weeks and interviewed abattoir workers for a research project on whether beef is environmentally safe.
“And I travelled across the desert with an Indigenous elder thinking about people and their relationship with the earth and the land,” Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles says.
Her experiences in her hometown and in Alice Springs solidified Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles’ passion for the environment and ecology. She became a schoolteacher and then entered academia to do research on the environment and education.
Her independent streak has also seen Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles become a strong advocate for improving teachers’ ecological literacy and for making environmental issues more prominent in the school curriculum. Her early observations of what was happening in schools prompted this advocacy.
When Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles began teaching 20 years ago, she felt “quite disenfranchised” because of the disconnect between schools and their relationship to ecology.
“I felt deeply conflicted around the purposes of schooling,” she explains. “And I have ever since (then) constantly gone back to that question of – ‘What is education for?’ And to me an education is more than the basics of mathematics and English. It’s far more relational than that; meaning what it is to be human in relation to other species on a perilous planet.”
However, Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles has observed some positive and fundamental changes in environmental education in early childhood and school education over the last 20 years. This has particularly been in the setting up of school garden programs Indigenous education programs and grassroots nature education activities. But she adds there is still a need to make the concepts of sustainability and the environment more prominent in the curriculum.
To achieve this, Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles says that ongoing research must be done because it can “influence systemic change”. She came to this conclusion after reading many policy documents that were underpinned by rigorous research.
Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles completed her PhD at Central Queensland University and has led over 40 research projects in environmental education and published over 150 publications. She says there is still much more research to do.
“That’s the thing with research,” she explains. “You turn over one stone and then it leads to a whole quarry. And that’s where I find myself – digging in the trenches.”
Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles’ research aims to engage children and young people. Although young people are the most heavily researched demographic, they generally do not actively participate and collaborate with researchers.
“It’s important in research to really push back on that because we’re only going to reach those deep levels of insights about childhood and environment if we’re working with young people as genuine collaborators,” Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles says.
She has found herself “astounded” by young people’s understanding of research methodologies and theories in classes she has taught them. She is also impressed by their incredible abilities to draw upon the arts – such as photography, video, poetry and social media – to reflect their complex thoughts and attitudes towards environmental issues.
As part of the ‘Climate Change + Me’ international research program, Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles and other researchers have engaged hundreds of children and young people from Australia and the UK as co-researchers. They have been mapping and providing a platform for children and young people to voice their climate change thoughts, concerns and actions. To facilitate young people’s research, they have had the opportunity to attend research training workshops.
A Climate Change App, co-designed and developed by young people will soon be launched as part of the research program. Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, who leads the research program, says the young co-researchers helped to do the coding for the app and gave it its activism focus for and by children and young people.
Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles is one of the youngest women in Australia to be made a professor at the age of 37 in 2015. She recalls feeling “overwhelmed” at the time and surprised at how quickly she moved from lecturer to professor. However, she isn’t too fussed about titles.
“I feel incredibly privileged to do the work that I do and for me when you get to a level like professor, the titles don’t really matter anymore. It’s lovely (to receive) the acknowledgement, but that’s not the reason to do the work.”
Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles also did not see herself becoming a dean. She says that if someone had asked her 10 years ago if she wanted to be a dean she would have flatly said ‘no’. However, she admits that she had a naïve understanding about the role. Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, who has been the education dean for just over a year, says now that she is in the position, she can see the “incredible” changes that can be realised.
Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles now lives in cottage on Tamborine Mountain in the subtropical rainforest. Her home is self-sufficient with food gardens and there are more companion animals than humans. The home also gets frequent visits from brush turkeys, echidnas, whipbirds, satin bowerbirds, carpet pythons and land mullets (skinks). Her two children are not only witnesses to all of this, but are actively involved in wildlife rescue and care.
“It’s important that you practise what you preach, and it must start in the home” Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles says.