A fish called wonder

A recurring refrain in discourses about the state of South African education is that the school system is not producing enough matriculants with adequate skills in mathematics and science, especially in the higher grade. Another is that too few young people are choosing careers in science and technology.

In addition, far too many educators lack the skills to teach these subjects, because they are themselves often the products of inadequate education. Because maths and science are regarded as ‘difficult” subjects, and because of the pressure on schools to increase their matric pass rates, far too many students are opting to take these subjects in the lower grade.

For the past decade, both government and the private sector have made energetic efforts to improve maths and science education, but, according to a report based on three years’ research released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) in November 2004, these efforts have not resulted in a dramatic improvement in higher grade pass rates in these subjects.

A national crisis?

Why is this so important? Maths and science education is essential in a world which is increasingly based on sophisticated technology and is a stepping stone to a wide range of jobs.

More critically, these skills enable a country to be innovative, to attract investment, to grow its economy and to compete in a globalised world.

Ann Bernstein, executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise, goes so far as to say that South Africa faces a national crisis. ‘This reality undermines all our ambitions for the country, for expanded economic growth, for black economic empowerment, for community development,” she says.

And if South Africa fails to achieve these goals, the hope of an African Renaissance may also fade, because South Africa is widely regarded as a driving force on the continent, particularly through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

Much needs to be done to reverse these trends. Bernstein suggests that, over the next five years, South Africa must

double both the number of matric passes in maths and science and the number of qualified teachers.

But how does one make maths and science more attractive to young people? It seems far-fetched to consider enlisting the help of a ‘living fossil”, but that’s just what the innovative African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) is seeking to do.

This multidisciplinary research programme under the auspices of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity in Grahamstown draws together scientists, educators and experts from across a broad spectrum: geoscience, oceanography, marine biology, marine ecology, genetics, social science, conservation, information technology, even underwater photography. A key element of the programme is to build public awareness not only about the marine environment but also about the many employment opportunities it offers. As then-minister of arts, culture, science and technology Dr Ben Ngubane said at the project’s launch in April 2002, ‘for South Africa to be globally competitive, it needs a solid base of highly skilled professionals in science, engineering and technology [SET]. The first step in building this base is to remove all the cultural barriers that still block the majority of our people from taking part in SET, especially previously marginalised communities. We need to demystify science and take it into the cultural mainstream so that everyone can participate in it on an equal basis. The plans for environmental education and the

popularisation of the coelacanth programme by capturing the imagination of all, and particularly the involvement of children — will excite and encourage them to follow careers in science and technology.”

ACEP’s programme manager, Dr Tony Ribbink, says the coelacanth is both a ‘window to the past and a door to the future” with which they hope to inspire young people to explore new frontiers in science.

To this end, ACEP has put in place a vigorous campaign to build not only public awareness about marine environmental issues but also to draw schools into participating actively. The keystones of the campaign are capacity building, especially among teachers, team building, and networking within South Africa as well as the region because, as Ribbink says, ‘The coelacanth is a true Nepad fish.”

A flagship species

So why choose the elusive coelacanth? Why not more familiar marine creatures such as sharks or dolphins or whales?

According to Professor Rosemary Dorrington, who is responsible for ACEP’s coelacanth genome resource programme, this ancient fish is the last great Holy Grail for biologists, and, for the secrets it may help unlock about evolution, akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In other words, ‘Old Fourlegs” may be the evolutionary great-grandparent of all reptiles and mammals — and hence, humankind.

A fish caught in time

The age of the Earth is so vast, it is only by analogy that we humans even begin to comprehend it. Stretch your arms out to each side of you and let the length from the tips of your left hand to those of your right hand represent 4,5-billion years. If someone took a nailfile and ran it across the fingernail of a middle finger, the time modern humans have been on earth would be erased.

About 400-million years ago, at the start of an era scientists call the Devonian, our planet looked very different to the

familiar continents depicted in maps and atlases. All the world’s land mass was gathered together into two super-continents: Gondwana and Euramerica, relatively close together in one hemisphere, and completely surrounded by a vast ocean, which covered the rest of the planet.

By the early Devonian, all the major groups of bony fish were present. As the era progressed, on land the first seed-bearing plants and trees began to change the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, paving the way for the first tetrapods (land-living vertebrates) and terrestrial anthropods (insects and arachnids) to emerge.

Around 380-million years ago, a large fish with soft, oily gristle instead of a bony spine and leg-like (lobed) fins first appeared. Its ancestral line branched away from the one that would lead to the ray-finned fishes and so it became an important stepping stone along the way to the tetrapods (all vertebrate creatures besides fish). Scientists believe the lobe-finned coelacanth will provide clues about why legs evolved as a form of locomotion.

For millennia, this fish survived the shifting of continents, several mass extinctions of life (including 90% of marine life), as well as the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. When another mass extinction hit the planet some 75 to 60-million years ago, it also became extinct — or so scientists thought, because only fossil specimens were known — until a live specimen was caught in a trawler’s net off the Chalumna river mouth near East London in December 1938, creating an international sensation.

Since then, at intervals, several more coelacanth specimens have been found along the African coast, most recently at

Sodwana Bay, but also around the Comores group of islands, Madagascar and Indonesia, although there are speculations that the latter may be a separate species.

Until recently, it was believed that the home territory of coelacanths was the Comores and that the East London specimen was a stray that had been washed down the Mozambique channel. This theory has, however, been challenged by the results of recent studies.

Over the past two years, much research has been done on coelacanth habitat, range and population sizes, as well as

currents and other environmental factors that may expand what is known about these mysterious fish.

An obstacle to studying coelacanths is the great depth at which they normally live — between 100-300m — which requires expensive and sophisticated equipment, a lot of funding and a great deal of international cooperation.

ACEP makes it possible for scientists from several southern and east African countries, as well as Madagascar and the Comores islands, to pool their skills and resources. They meet regularly to share the results of their research findings, but this is no closed shop. Through ACEP’s educational outreach programme, school children and undergraduate students are being given the opportunity to participate in some of these activities in the hope that it will inspire them to seek careers in the diverse and exciting world of science.

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