Dr Sonia Fonua

PhD, MA, BA/BSc (cj)

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Professional Teaching Fellow


Mālō e lelei! My name is Sonia Fonua and I work in the School of Environment, the Faculty of Science. 

One part of my role involves coordinating courses and teaching in the School of Environment. I also have a specific focus on enhancing the engagement and academic success of Pacific students in the School of Environment. 

I have just completed my PhD, Ha’otā: Transforming science education in Aotearoa New Zealand for Tongan students, in Critical Studies in Education within the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. My research interests focus on ethnic disparities in education, ways to embed Indigenous knowledge and develop effective teaching and learning methods for Indigenous and Pacific students.  I also have two young sons who are my inspiration to help improve the education system for Pasifika, aiming to ensure they have positive educational experiences and can be themselves. 

My teaching philosophy has developed from almost twenty years as an ‘insider’ (educator) in the university system, an experience that has continually highlighted the inequitable outcomes for Māori and Pacific students’ achievement. Therefore, my teaching focus foregrounds the needs of Māori and Pacific students in their teaching and learning. This approach is also informed by my research focus, which represents the lived experience and voice of my participants, centralising their stories to determine what is needed to make all Tongan (and other Pacific and indigenous) students successful in academic institutions from their perspective. These stories inform my practice, design and delivery on my own courses to assist students so their transition to the university environment is as successful as possible. 

Research | Current

My area of interest is Moana/Pacific and Indigenous science education. I am currently researching Tongan students and science in my doctoral studies, particularly what they self-identify as contributing to their success, engagement, achievement, retention and enjoyment in secondary school and university. I am also interested in the role that Indigenous science knowledge has played in the educational experience of students in science and the teaching and learning approaches that create supportive learning environments for success.

I have completed a BA/BSc conjoint degree in Anthropology and Biology, and graduated with a Master’s degree in Biological Anthropology (First Class Honours) in 2002, both at the University of Auckland.

I first became involved in education research when I had the opportunity to work on the ‘Success for All in Higher Education: Improving indigenous and minority student success in degree-level studies’ research project with Dr Airini. Our team won one of the University of Auckland Equity Awards in 2010 for Excellence in Equity Success for all: Improving Māori and Pasifika success in degree-level studies at The University of Auckland. 

I enrolled in my part-time PhD in 2013 and received the CRiSTIE 2013 Postgraduate Research Award in Higher Education. I also received an Oceania Comparative and International Education Society New Scholar Award for the 2015 Conference in Vanuatu. I recently received the CLEAR Fellowship for the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences for 2018 for my project ‘Embedding indigenous knowledge, values and culture for Māori and Pasifika success’. To support this research I was awarded a CLEAR ‘SEED Grant for innovation in teaching’.

In 2019, I was awarded a University of Auckland Learning Enhancement Grant for Mea’ofa: The gifts gained by sharing and learning Māori and Pacific ways of being  as lead with Dr. Hinekura Smith, Dr. 'Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki, Dr. Karen Fisher and Ms Mel Wall.


Teaching | Current

Course coordinator for ENVSCI 101/101G - Semester 1 and Semester 2.

Postgraduate supervision




Learning Enhancement Grant (LEG) 2020 for Mea’ofa: The gifts gained by sharing and learning Māori and Pacific ways of being

CLEAR Fellowship for the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences for 2018 for my project ‘Embedding Indigenous knowledge, values and culture for Māori and Pasifika success’.

Recipent of a CLEAR ‘SEED Grant 2018 for innovation in teaching’.

Recipient of an OCIES New Scholar Award for 2015 Conference

Recipient of the CRiSTIE Higher Education award 2013.

Masters of Arts in Anthropology, 2002 - First Class Honours.

Areas of expertise

Pacific and Māori student engagement, achievement & success.

Embedding Pacific and Māori values, knowledge and culture in science-focused courses.

The role of Indigenous science knowledge in science education

Foundation science education.

University (and tertiary) science education.

Committees/Professional groups/Services

Chair of the School of Environment Equity Committee

Faculty of Science Pacific Reference Group - School of Environment rep

Faculty of Science Equity Committee - School of Environment rep

Faculty of Science Teaching and Learning Innovation Group member

School of Environment AKO Innovation Committee (AIC) member

Co-chair of the Foundation and Bridging Educators New Zealand

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

As of 29 October 2020 there will be no automatic updating of 'selected publications and creative works' from Research Outputs. Please continue to keep your Research Outputs profile up to date.
  • Meredith, M., Fonua, S. M., Tatafu, A., & McKay, Y. (2020). Why RPEIPP? Emerging/next generation Pacific academics, researchers, and educators. In S. Johansson-Fua, 'Otunuku M, Toumu'a R (Eds.) It takes an island and an ocean (pp. 113-125). 'Atele, Kingdom of Tonga: Institute of Education, The University of the South Pacific. Related URL.
  • Fonua, S. M. (2020). Lalanga ha kaha’u monu’ia – Helping science educators to embed indigenous knowledge, values, and culture in their courses for Māori and Pasifika science student success. MAI Journal, 9 (1), 49-58. 10.20507/MAIJournal.2020.9.1.6
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/51939
  • Cobb, D. J., Couch, D., & Fonua, S. M. (2019). Exploring, celebrating, and deepening Oceanic relationalities. International Education Journal, 18 (2), 1-10. Related URL.
  • Fonua, S. (2018). Embedding Indigenous Science Knowledge & Values in Higher Education: Critical reflexive practice informed by Successful Tongan Science Learners. Waikato Journal of Education, 23 (1), 95-106. 10.15663/wje.v23i1.629
  • Curtis, E., Wikaire, E., Jiang, Y., McMillan, L., Loto, R., Fonua, S., ... Newport, R. (2016). Open to critique: Predictive effects of academic outcomes from a bridging/foundation programme on first-year degree-level study. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42 (1), 151-167. 10.1080/02602938.2015.1087463
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Papaarangi Reid, Janine Wiles
  • Tse, S., Dyall, L., Clarke, D., Abbott, M., Townsend, S., & Kingi, P. (2012). Why People Gamble: A Qualitative Study of Four New Zealand Ethnic Groups. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10 (6), 849-861. 10.1007/s11469-012-9380-7
  • Curtis, E., Townsend, S., & Airini (2012). Improving indigenous and ethnic minority student success in foundation health study. TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION, 17 (5), 589-602. 10.1080/13562517.2012.658559
  • Airini, Curtis, E. T., Townsend, S., Rakeha, T., Brown, D., Sanni, P., ... Johnson, O. (2011). Teaching for Student Success: Promising Practices in University Teaching. Pacific Asian Education, 23 (1), 71-90. Related URL.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/13472

Contact details

Primary office location

SCIENCE CENTRE 302 - Bldg 302
Level 4, Room 439
New Zealand