Making maths and science a must

Category F: Award for Innovation developed through an NGO/not-for-profit organisation or community-based organisation.

The Marang Centre for Maths and Science Education at the University of the Witwatersrand is the recipient of this award this year for its pioneering approach in the teaching of science and mathematics in schools.

It provides a unique model for combining excellence and innovation in research with teacher development in mathematics and science education in South Africa and is geared to impact on high-level intellectual capacity in these fields in higher education and in schools, which in turn will impact on the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

Marang grew out of a vibrant mathematics and science education community at Wits, which joined together in the Wits school of education to establish a centre committed to improving the level of science and mathematics education in South Africa by creating a unique model for combining excellence and innovation in research and focusing on teacher development.

Established in 2005 under the directorship of Professor Mamokgethi Setati, an internationally acclaimed C1-rated researcher, the centre has made a major contribution to the development of capacity in mathematics and science education.

The initiative was established with the support of Standard Bank who provided funding for the centre and Wits University who provided support for a new chair in science education.

In 2007 Setati was appointed dean of the college of science and technology at Unisa and Professor Jill Adler, an A-rated NRF scientist took over directorship. The chair of science education, Professor Marissa Rollnick, a C1-rated scientist, is currently running the centre.

“Marang’s activities are directed at strategic thrusts of research and teacher development,” says Rollnick.

“Since 2005, each of the thrusts has published key research findings, supplemented by an annual symposium and related teachers’ workshops. In this way the research work of the thrust informs and is informed by significant problems of practice, and engages with communities of research, policy and practice.”

There are five research thrusts: curriculum: effective teaching and learning of mathematics and science; language and mathematics/science; mathematical literacy; mathematics for teaching thrust; and subject matter for teaching science.

“Marang means spark or ray of light,” explains Rollnick. “It only made sense to equate this with the two historical maths and science geniuses who illuminated the concept of the light spectrum and electricity — Newton and Edison. Using an apple to represent Newton, and a lightbulb to represent Edison, we devised a formula to arrive at the Marang identity -— apple (Newton) plus light (Edison) equals Marang — a yellow apple with a light at its centre.”

Rollnick explains that the use of yellow was researched and was found to stimulate mental activity, generate muscle energy and attract attention.

“Even more astonishing was the fact that students who study in yellow rooms do better in exams!” she says.

“The Marang centre for science and mathematics education at Wits provides a unique model for combining excellence and innovation in research, teacher development and professional outreach to meet South Africa’s acute need for the development of high-level science and technology,” Rollnick adds.

“We are responding to critical problems in mathematics and science education in South Africa,” she says. “The major performance indicators of these problems are poor matriculation results nationally in mathematics and science, poor results on comparative regional and international assessments in these domains, as well as very small numbers of African candidates obtaining university entrance in these subjects.”

Rollnick says that among the problems that contribute to this situation — and that are on Marang’s focused agenda — are the fact that the majority of learners taking mathematics and science are learning in English, a language that they are not yet familiar with.

“There seems to be an internalised consciousness that ‘our people cannot do high-level mathematics and science’ and as such there is a lack of leadership and role models to change these perceptions,” says Rollnick.

“Mathematics and science teachers’ inadequate prior training and resulting limited understanding of the subjects that they are teaching is another of the problems we are dealing with,” she adds.

“In addition, there have been no teachers trained for the introduction of mathematical literacy as a new learning area in the school curriculum. So we had to develop an advanced certificate in education to retrain teachers to teach maths literacy.

“These use the results of research and development carried out in the centre by staff and postgraduate students, many of whom are practising teachers,” says Rollnick. “Our postgraduate programmes are largely offered on a part-time basis, allowing teachers to remain in the classroom while they are becoming part of a vibrant research community. A by-product of much of this research are materials and techniques which can be used by other teachers in the implementation of the new science and mathematics curricula.”

Marang’s overarching goal is to improve the quality of mathematics and science education in South Africa through innovation in research and teacher development in the following areas:

  • The development of high-level intellectual capacity in mathematics and science education both at school level and in higher education;
  • The development of mathematics and science courses and programmes for teachers that strengthen their knowledge of these subjects in ways that are useful for teaching, especially at secondary school level;
  • The development of best practices in multi-lingual classrooms that pays attention to how learners’ language facilities are drawn on and strengthened in these two key subject areas;
  • The development of mathematical literacy programmes (and preparation of teachers for this);
  • The development of best practices in the teaching and learning of mathematics and science; and.
  • The provision of baseline knowledge about how science informal learning institutions in South Africa can best be utilised to promote science awareness and learning in schools.

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