Kia ora computer science

1 November 2018

Dr Te Taka Keegan is a computer scientist at the University of Waikato.

Dr Te Taka Keegan never planned to be a teacher, but he’s a winning one. He possesses the rare skill combination of computing and te reo Māori, which means he’s spent many hours with Microsoft and at Google HQ.

He’s a computer scientist at the University of Waikato, and in 2017 won the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for Excellence in Tertiary Teaching.

Dr Keegan (Waikato-Maniapoto, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Whakaaue) has a special way of teaching. He uses a Māori teaching philosophy and he’s the only person known to have taught a computer science paper completely in te reo Māori.

He never set out to be a teacher and he’s had little formal training, but his teaching style has been consistently popular with students who describe him as “creative, compassionate and persistent, with an engaging manner”.

“I teach using kaupapa Māori methods, even though the students probably aren't aware of this,” he says. “My teaching philosophy is based around important Māori principles, including kia hiki te wairua (lifting the spirits), kia hihiko te kaupapa (inciting the passion) and kia hora te aroha (sharing the love).”

Dr Keegan taught computer science completely in te reo for 12 years. He created more than 500 words that previously hadn’t existed in the Māori language most of which have seeped into common usage in te reo.

In the 10-minute interval before his computing classes begin, Dr Keegan cranks the music up in his lecture room so students walk in and relax. If a student answers a question correctly, he rewards them with a peanut slab. If a student has a problem, it becomes his problem.

"If you really care about your students, they know that, they feel that.”

Dr Keegan’s working career began in technology when he worked as a hardware engineer for Datacom and Digital. A decade later he returned from living in Australia to complete a total immersion Māori language degree at the University of Waikato, which led to him combining his two loves, computing and te reo. He completed bachelor, masters and doctoral study. For his master’s degree, he studied traditional Māori navigation, and helped rig and sail a traditional double-hull canoe (waka) from Hawai’i to Rarotonga. His PhD was titled Indigenous Language Usage in a Digital Library: He Hautoa Kia Ora Tonu Ai.

The computer science-te reo combination has proved valuable outside the university too. Dr Keegan managed the development of the Niupepa Collection – the digitisation of the valuable historical collection of Māori language newspapers in the Alexander Turnbull Library. He worked with Microsoft to macronise the keyboard, now a Microsoft standard, and worked on the translation of Office 2003 and Windows XP into Māori.

He’s worked with Google on various projects including the translation of the Google Web Search interface into Māori. He spent six months with Google in Mountain View as a visiting scientist assisting with the Google Translator Toolkit for Māori. Further work with Google led to Translate in Māori. He is the current chair of Kāhui Māori of the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge and there are a number of exciting research activities for te reo Māori in technology that Te Taka is currently working on when he is not teaching.

Married and a father of four, Dr Keegan also enjoys refereeing rugby and driving his Ford Mustang on the various racetracks around the country.

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