Bangs, roses and sizzling science

‘I like explosions,” says Chantall Bekker, when asked why she enjoyed this year’s science festival at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

Bekker was one of a group of 18 Grade 10 and Grade 11 learners who drove 12 hours each way in a minibus from Kingsway High School in Amanzimtoti to the Sasol Scifest. And every minute of the long, hot trip, Bekker and her classmates agree, was worth it.

The learners saw their fair share of explosions at the festival, including one experiment in which coffee and cremora blew up.
They also saw a rose being frozen in liquid nitrogen and then crumpled to nothing seconds later. They extracted DNA from wheat germ and participated in the Science Olympics by building a bridge.

Rick Visser recounts the week excitedly: ‘We learnt how to make chocolate and to drive a car. We even got to shock each other!”

Fellow learner Christine Thorne says, ‘You see the world of science at the festival like you don’t see it in the classroom. It’s more practical - you actually see science in action.”

Zama Hlophe adds that the relaxed atmosphere enhances the experience. ‘It had a sense of freedom to it - there were no tests or exams at the end; there was no pressure to learn. We were just learning for the fun of it.”

Their teacher, Rajesh Sewpershad, who is head of department of physical science, biology and maths at Kingsway (which caters for over

1 000 learners) is zealous about the Scifest. ‘We’ve been going from the time it started, about five years ago. Every year it’s getting bigger and better, with more international speakers, more presentations and workshops.”

He points out that the festival is not only for high school science learners. ‘They now cater for all grades, from primary to high school, and even beyond - some of the material is of university standard.”

Sewpershad says he hopes the annual pilgrimage that he leads to the Scifest ‘will boost their interest in science, so they can pursue a career in science”.

One criticism Sewpershad has of the festival is that too many learners are left unsupervised. ‘For example, when we went to the open sunset shows, we could hardly hear because learners were making such a noise.” But that is not enough to make him stay away. ‘I’ll definitely go again next year!”

Sewpershad’s love of his subject clearly makes him an excellent science teacher. Last year one of his matric pupils, Yerusha Govender, achieved 95% in the national common exam that was written by all provinces for the first time, and was one of the province’s top 10 science learners. His learners also achieved eight As and nine Bs in total - and none of the class of 100 students failed.

Ria Kleynhans, Kingsway’s deputy principal, says the school’s science marks have improved markedly since Sewpershad came to the school a few years ago. ‘He has really turned the science department around,” she says. ‘He’s produced As we just didn’t get before.”

How does he do it? ‘We participate in the Science Olympiad, the Science Expo at the University of Natal, and this year the Grade 11s are having an internal expo. When a learner has a problem, we encourage them to come to us and we help them individually.” And lastly, he says, ‘We’re not scared to try new things.”

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