Making science pay
‘Science is about everything around you,” says University of Johannesburg student Mbali Nkabinde. “It’s about the weather, about the food you eat, the water you drink, everything. Understanding science gives you a better understanding of things. And without science, we would be going nowhere slowly.”
In the teeth of a community which all but actively opposed learners—and especially a girl—studying science, Nkabinde chose to do biotechnology because “it’s different, and it makes a difference to people’s lives,” she says.
“Science, engineering and technology affects people’s lives in many ways. Look at how DNA analysis helps the nation solve some of the complex criminal cases,” says Isaac Ramovha, director of the science and youth unit, at the department of science and technology (DST), expanding on the student’s comment.
“The Gauteng Freeway Improvement project, that saw up to 125.5 km of the highways being upgraded to manage traffic congestion (which, among others, negatively affected economic growth), is mainly engineering-based work. Various medical technologies, like the CAT Scan, have made the diagnoses of several diseases and other medical conditions easier to manage.”
That’s why National Science Week matters so much, says Cathryn Treasure, general manager of HIP2B2, Mark Shuttleworth’s edutainment initiative which is so successful at enthusing young people about science and technology. “The DST specifically uses this week to highlight the importance of science to society, and its value as a subject for young people in this country. It’s a week of focused activities which generates an incredible amount of coverage and assists us all to raise the profile of science.”
Each year, National Science Week has a theme, and in 2011 the theme is ‘the role of science and technology in economic development’. South Africa may boast about scientific achievements like the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array, but it is on the ground that science, engineering and technology are needed the most.
Real, lasting economic development is founded on the work done in applied science, such as agriculture, entomology, fibre optics, photovoltaics, forestry. All the areas in which scientific research is transformed into practical applications which bring us safe food to eat, more efficient energy, information technology and so much more.
National Science Week is also crucial as a step towards addressing some serious gaps in South Africa’s human potential, according to Michael Ellis of SciBono, southern Africa’s largest science centre. “Science is specifically important in South Africa because we have incredibly low scientific and mathematic literacy as shown by the TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study 2003), where we were the poorest performing country,” he says.
“Workshops, seminars, exhibitions, excursions, posters, science shows, media articles and interviews are some of the activities that are organised to celebrate National Science Week. All the activities should in one way or another take into consideration the theme of the National Science Week,” says Ramovha. Other organisations like SciBono have also run activities such as its Lego Car Design workshop for primary school children and workshops on applications of science (like the biogas, soil science and earthworm workshop) for older learners.
In addition, HIP2B2 has hosted the annual HIP2B2 iThink Challenge in all nine provinces. More than 10 000 learners took part in the event, participating in a variety of science- and maths-related tasks, riddles and problems. The style and format was similar to the hit television series The Amazing Race. Fun and games like these are a great way to generate interest in science, says Ministry of Basic Education director David Silman, himself until recently a science teacher. Transforming a subject from something that can easily be seen as boring into something attention-grabbing and exciting takes one key factor: enthusiasm. “
Making things that go bang or fizz in a science class is sometimes frowned upon, but a teacher who is enthusiastic in his approach will take the kids along with him—if they see you having fun with it, they’ll enjoy it. Funnily enough,” he adds, “people enjoy science,” especially if it’s served up in a palatable, entertaining format, like the HIP2B2 iThink Challenge or TV programmes like the British QI.
One of the major goals of National Science Week is to contribute to the development of a society that values and appreciates science, engineering and technology says Ramovha. “Such a society is likely to even encourage its children to study mathematics and sciences at school level, and to follow science-based careers.”
The Department also has the Youth into Science Strategy which seeks to enhance youths’ access to science, engineering and technology. The Department is involved in initiatives intended to stimulate learners’ interests in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation.
The intention here is to attract learners to consider studying mathematics and physical science when they enter Grade 10 and to continue studying these subjects through Grade 12. That’s not early enough, says Nkabinde, who so recently experienced the schools’ system from the inside: you must catch them really young.
“You need to introduce science at a very young age, before children have learned that there’s a stigma attached to science—science is really hard, and you’re a nerd if you do it.” Treasure agrees: “Many parents have had a negative experience of maths and science at school.” This deters them from encouraging their children to follow through on science and maths subjects.
“The message should be that by studying maths and science, they’re investing in their futures, because these subjects open up so many career paths.” A society that understands, values and appreciates science is one in which citizens are more empowered to take part in democracy, Ramovha points out.
When policy issues are at stake—for example, energy policy, policy that impacts on water issues or climate change, policy that relates to food production and labelling—citizens with some basic grasp of science and the scientific methods will be better able to assess issues and make informed inputs. And aside from the area of public policy, a grasp of science enables people to make better decisions about some very personal issues.
When you can ask the right questions about stories you read in the media, for example, you are better placed to decide whether to eat eggs, let your child have a cell phone or buy that expensive skin-care product.
“There is not a single South African who is not directly affected by scientific discoveries and the technologies that are developed because of them,” says Ellis. “Science matters because it can open one’s mind to a world of inquiry where we don’t just take things for granted but try to understand the why and how of the world around us.”