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How should science teaching change?

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Graduates are more than their degrees

There’s a restlessness in South Africa right now. “Society is sizzling,” is the way Wits lecturer Kgothatso “KayG” Nhlengetwa (BSc 2008, BSc Hons 2009) puts it. “What are we doing about it?” she asked at a recent Science Faculty symposium on transformation in science teaching.

KayG is an exceptional person, arguably an embodiment of transformation herself: a young black female geologist. But transformation is not just about the number of people representing certain categories, she says. It is about understanding people.

“Transformation includes the numbers but is not limited to them,” she says. “It also includes mindsets, attitudes and the social environment. And these more qualitative aspects also need to be brought to the fore in the debate. People are complex and thus transformation is intrinsically complex.”

It is important to think about the purpose and result of transformation. Where are we going and why? “The purpose speaks directly to the result, what we measure and how we implement strategies.”

KayG is a PhD candidate in Mining Geology, a Canon Collins scholar and an associate lecturer in the School of Geosciences at Wits. Speaking about transformation in science teaching, she says it is critical to work within an African context. “By using more contextual resources we open up a gateway for innovative African solutions for African problems in varied sectors.”  

She received a Department of Science and Technology Women in Science Fellowship in 2014 for her research work on artisanal and small scale (“zama-zama”) mining

Transformation in science: what does it mean?

“Transformation” is a concept with many different meanings.

Sharing his personal view at the Science Faculty symposium, the Dean, Professor Helder Marques, first spoke about the nature of science. “It is reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary. It creates a picture of the world that is accurate, quantitative, logical and comprehensible. Its strength is its predictive power,” he said.

Things do change in science, of course. Theories change when the facts don’t fit them. And science takes place in a changing world, where its findings can be denied or distorted, and its proponents harassed. Think of the “brain drain” of academics from South Africa during the apartheid years.

But what transformation means to Prof Marques is “change with a purpose: change in structures, practices and procedures to make a quality education accessible to all. It means empowering students with what they need to work.

“You cannot compromise on standards. Wits students must be equipped for any scientific endeavour in the world, and prepared for the next industrial revolution.”

South Africa’s school system is not preparing students for university-level science and the financial obstacles to producing increasing numbers of top-quality science graduates are enormous.

But in Prof Marques’ view, “transformation is about a state of mind”.

Portrait of a Wits science graduate

A product of the Science Faculty, he said, should:

  • Understand the philosophy of science
  • Be a critical thinker
  • Be competitive in a changing world

We need appropriate ways to get students to that place:

  • A supportive and empathetic environment in which people feel at home
  • A welcoming and caring attitude
  • Willingness to listen
  • Responsiveness so as to gain the trust of students
  • Catering for classes containing students with different levels of skill
  • A restructured curriculum (perhaps emphasising skills rather than content) so that students leave having attained high standards.

Prof Marques obtained his science and teaching degrees at Wits and has received two of the University’s most prestigious awards: the Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award (1992) and the Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award (1989).

What do you remember about learning science at Wits? Let us know.

A chemical reaction among students

Wits alumni Prof Shane Durbach and Dr Paul Franklyn spoke about the Research Assistantship Programme (RAP) for chemistry students. This gives students hands-on laboratory experience working with more senior researchers.

What would you do if your laboratory experiment didn’t work? This question – and not social or educational background – is the best predictor of success in the programme. And beyond: up to 80% of the RAP participants go on to postgraduate chemistry studies.

The students themselves say that RAP makes them feel that they matter, exposes them to the reality of work in chemistry, gives them practical skills, gives them a sense of purpose and a vision of their possible future, and shows them what impact they can make as chemists.

Transformation is happening in chemistry teaching but it’s not a change in the syllabus or the curriculum – it’s a change inside the students.

The Chemistry Department would like to track what becomes of its graduates – so do stay in touch!

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