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  • The Science of Medicines – Whakatere Waka is an innovative, hands-on education programme that uses te ao Māori perspectives to build conversations and confidence around medicines. Dr Karyn Maclennan from Ngāi Tahi Māori Health Research Unit at Otago University and her team are using outreach to explore some big questions:

    • Where do medicines come from?
    • How are they made?
    • How do they work?
    • How do we use them safely?
    • What does the future hold?

    The Science of Medicines project

    Dr Karyn Maclennan tells how The Science of Medicines team chose the themes and resources to engage communities.

    Select here to view video transcript, questions for discussion and copyright information.

    Filling a knowledge gap

    Karyn noticed a gap in Aotearoa New Zealand’s Curriculum – medicines education is not often taught. She wondered where people were getting their information about medicines and the safe use of medicines. Karyn approached colleagues and they formulated ideas for outreach and successfully approached Unlocking Curious Minds, which funds community engagement with science and technology.

    I think everybody needs access to relevant and accessible information about medicines, in particular about the potential benefits of medicines that they might take and the potential risks of the medicines they might take. Once the decision is made to take a medicine, it’s really important to know how to take that medicine optimally so that it’s as effective as it can be and that it’s safe.

    Dr Karyn Maclennan

    Taking the project to the community

    The Science of Medicines – Whakatere Waka aims to connect with communities, especially those for whom science is not readily accessible. The team is very aware of the need for accessible health information that is grounded in science. Engaging young people also engages whānau, and those who help with the project are able to have face-to-face conversations with members of the wider community.

    Rights: University of Otago

    A wayfaring approach to understanding medicines

    The Science of Medicines – Whakatere Waka uses a wayfaring approach to promote scientific literacy about the use of medicines.

    Whakatere waka – navigating the journey

    The project uses waka and wayfaring analogies as a means of guiding ākonga through the big questions. Each paddle of the waka steers learners to a different aspect of the science of medicines.

    The journey begins with discovery – where medicines come from. Ākonga are invited to peruse Nature’s Medicine Chest – multiple drawers housing information on rongoā rākau and other natural substances like willow bark and venoms.

    The next step is to look at how medicines are made – with attention to quality, formulation and effectiveness. Ākonga investigate what makes up medicine by looking at the structure of liquid paracetamol under a microscope and using natural materials to create their own lip balm.

    The Science of Medicines – adapting to COVID-19

    Learning about medicines and vaccines takes on extra meaning during a pandemic. Hands-on games helped to explain the concept of community immunity.

    Select here to view video transcript, questions for discussion and copyright information.

    Shifting emphasis with the COVID-19 pandemic

    With the advent of COVID-19, the explore and protect paddles/aspects of the project have taken on more significant meanings. Exploring how medicines work – what our bodies do to medicines and what medicines do to our bodies – has been expanded to take a closer look at viruses and vaccines.

    Two games – COVID Kerplunk and Corona-Bowling – provide active, hands-on examples of how vaccines help to keep us safe and provide community immunity. The protect element – considering the benefits and risks of medicines – includes how to use medicines safely as well as using scientific facts to support informed choices about medicines and vaccines.

    Imagining what the future holds encourages ākonga to predict the future by creating it. There are ‘under investigation’ drawers in the What’s Next Nature’s Medicine Chest. Gaming is another component – ākonga use nanobots to blast cancer cell invaders and use antibiotics wisely to try to defeat antibiotic resistance.

    Outcomes from The Science of Medicines project

    Science communication comes in many forms. Karyn Maclennan explains how games and hands-on activities can deliver knowledge and create connections within the community.

    Select here to view video transcript, questions for discussion and copyright information.

    Bug-busting, gaming and the pandemic inspired a series of workshops – The D-Bug Game Design Challenge – a place for ākonga to create clay models, dioramas and digital games to increase their awareness of viruses and vaccines and to teach others in a fun and engaging way.

    Board game

    The Science of Medicines team created a board game in which players navigate their waka on a voyage through the safe use of medicines. Download an A3 PDF version of the game.

    Related content

    Fighting infection – introduction curates many of the Hub’s resources on the immune system, vaccinations and rongoā.

    Antimicrobial resistance – a context for learning curates many of the Hub’s resources on what Dr Karen Maclennan refers to as the not so silent pandemic.

    Read about other Unlocking Curious Minds projects:

    Related activities

    Game design for viruses and vaccines uses clay modelling, dioramas and/or digital game design to promote an understanding of viruses, viral transmission and infection, and defence strategies.

    Viruses and immunity – interpreting infographics helps students interpret representations created for The Science of Medicines project.

    Useful links

    In the game Remission 2 Nanobots Revenge ākonga use nanobots to blast cancer cell invaders. Download links for the game are here.

    In the Superbugs app ākonga have to use antibiotics wisely to try to defeat antibiotic resistance.


    The Science of Medicines is a collaboration between the University of Otago and Tūhura Otago Museum and was funded by an Unlocking Curious Minds community engagement grant.

    Rights: University of Otago, Tūhura Otago Museum and Unlocking Curious Minds

    The Science of Medicines stakeholders

    The Science of Medicines project and D-Bug Game Design Challenge are outreach projects initiated by the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago. Funding was provided by Unlocking Curious Minds, with support from Tūhura Otago Museum.

      Published 17 August 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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