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Lessons in Chemistry

- Wits University

Science education professor envisages a theoretical construct to help high school teachers teach Chemistry – wins global recognition.

Professor of Science Education Elizabeth Mavhunga

Professor Elizabeth Mavhunga has come a long way since she first encountered a white lecturer in a fully equipped chemistry lab, to becoming only the third South African to receive a NARST Fellowship Award some 40 years later. NARST is the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, based in the United States.

The Soweto-born Wits alumna grew up in Mhluzi, Middelburg. Her qualifications include a BSc Chemistry – “after being rejected for Pharmacy” – then a BSc Honours, completed with a bursary from AECI Ltd. She received her doctorate in Science Education in 2012.

Chemistry in technicolour

 Mavhunga recalls both the shock and exhilaration of her undergraduate student experience: The first cultural shock was to be taught by a white lecturer, in the Humphrey Raikes Chemistry building, full of mostly white students.

“You have to keep in mind that I grew up in a very small community, largely semi-rural at that time. People did not intermingle at the time, and my engagement with white people was only when we went to town for shopping or to see a doctor.”

Furthermore, Mavhunga had to overcome the reality that she couldn’t fully comprehend what was being taught – “I could not figure out whether it was the English or the abstract nature of the content,” she says.

The next shock was to walk into a fully furnished Chemistry laboratory stocked with different shaped flasks, measuring instruments, chemicals and “all these rules, the Do’s and Don’ts.” But then ultimately, “the exciting realisation that I could actually conduct sound chemical experiments – with all the glamour of colours! – and a perfect logic behind their reactions.”

Teaching experiments

After graduating with an honours degree in Chemistry, Mavhunga worked at AECI as a research officer for PVC polymers and monomers for three years.

“My passion for education drew me back to studying a MSc in Science Education, which I completed Cum Laude in 1997. After starting a family and raising children, I returned for my PhD in 2010 and completed it two-and-a-half years later.”

Mavhunga joined the Wits School of Education as a Senior Lecturer in 2013, progressing to Associate Professor in 2017, and full Professor in 2021.

Her passion for education and academia is evident: “I have always loved the education environment, the energy that students and teachers bring, the fact that it is a system where one can predict outcomes, and there is a respectable way of acknowledging achievements. I love the drama and the excitement that goes with graduations! I love the feeling of control over one’s time and the wins that come with self-discipline.”

Digitizing science and AI-empowered teaching

Mavhunga’s research interest reflects her predilection for systems, sound experiments, and predictable outcomes. Her research focus is in defining and subsequently fast-tracking the development of professional teacher knowledge for teaching science.

“It is important that we clearly define what makes teachers expert science teachers. When we do, then we can target the development of such competence, one science topic at a time, with precision and with predictable results.” 

Given South Africa’s current economy and low uptake of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, we don’t have the luxury of producing graduate-teachers who need extensive practical experience to hit the right note in the classroom, says Mavhunga. “They have to teach science as close to the best version as possible on arrival!”

It’s this work that has drawn the attention of the global science education community to Mavhunga’s publications. To date, she's been exploring the translation of this work into the world of digitalization and AI.

The foundation of her research career (which culminated in an Inaugural Lecture in 2022) was laid back in 2012 when she conceptualised a theoretical construct called “Topic Specific Pedagogical Content Knowledge” (TSPCK) in her PhD in Science Education. This construct emerged within the context of poor learner achievement in science in South Africa.

“TSPCK is uniquely the domain of teachers and enables them to transform abstract content into a form that can be easily understood by their learners,” she says.

The move of education on to digital platforms triggered the development of TSPCK, and now Mavhunga’s taking it a step further; the refined version of TSPCK enables teaching science in the digital realm.

“I am very excited about this newly developed theoretical construct, Digital-TSPCK, that describes the special knowledge that a science teacher needs to build and deliver an effective lesson via digital media. It’s basically building a digital lesson and packaging it as a teaching video.”

But she doesn’t mean simply recording a teacher in front of a video camera; Digital-TSPCK builds digital science content that is focussed, sequenced, and structured.

“Digital-TSPCK is special in that it combines discipline-specific teaching considerations, teacher digital competencies, and learner considerations for learning through digital media.”

Global recognition of South African science education excellence

It’s innovations like Digital-TSPCK, built on decades of research, that earned Mavhunga the Fellowship Award from the US-based National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST). She received the award on 18 March at the NARST International Conference in Denver, Colorado.

Professor of Science Education Elizabeth Mavhunga NARST Fellowship awardee

She says, “The NARST Fellowship award was a very pleasant surprise indeed! This award means that my research contributions in science education are being recognised by the global science education professional community.”

Mavhunga’s fellowship is one of only three awards that NARST has made to a South African – another one of which was in 2018, to Mavhunga’s mentor, Emeritus Professor Marissa Rollnick.

Mavhunga says Rollnick introduced her to cutting-edge research in science education about building specialised professional knowledge that science teachers need and use to teach abstract science content.

Igniting the flame

Mavhunga encourages emerging scholars and scientists to “pay attention to the people who cross your path as they just might be your academic life game-changers” as well as to “work as if the piece of work in front of you is all you have!”

She says scholars should participate in the Wits Research Office’s professional development workshops, delivered by Dr Robin Drennan, Director of Research and Development, whom Mavhunga says “has been influential in helping me make my research visible.”

Mavhunga says, “This NARST Fellowship award is warmly dedicated to the science education community in Mzansi – teacher educators, PhD graduate students, early researcher scholars, my colleagues in the science and technology division. It is their uptake of my research through citations and research-building projects that has made me visibile and put South African science education on the world research map."