University of Venda science centre serves rural schools

The Vuwani Science Centre, based in the dusty Vuwani village, is one of the University of Venda’s flagship community engagement programmes.

The centre opened its doors in 2000 to fulfil the need of schools around Thohoyandou for a well-equipped laboratory. The centre serves as a community outreach programme for the university’s faculty of natural and applied sciences.

The director of the science centre, Vaith Sankarana, says the centre plays a major role in promoting an awareness of science and technology among rural learners: “We assist learners with science projects and bolster their progression to tertiary studies.”

Mobile labs boost the university’s capacity to reach some of the remote rural schools that do not have science laboratories to help enhance their maths and science matric performance.

This year the Warwick in Africa initiative, an international community engagement project of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, is being implemented for the first time in the Vhembe district in collaboration with the science centre.

Univen vice-chancellor Peter Mbati says they recently hosted seven young teachers and students from Warwick University as volunteers at the centre.

Ompha Siphuga, a product of the Vuwani Science Centre, now a fourth-year BSc student, says the centre helped him to “ace” science with distinction in matric in 2006. “At the centre we were able to do chemistry experiments practically because we had access to a lab and chemicals,” he says.

Now volunteers at the science centre are helping high-school learners with maths and science.

“Because most of the schools in the area do not have any laboratory facilities, learners acquire hands-on experience in the centre’s labs,” says Sankarana.

The centre has laboratories that enhance learning in physics, biology and computer literacy. “It provides an optimal setting for motivating students, and allows them to experience what science really is,” says Sankarana.

Every year nearly 7 000 learners from different schools attend the centre, which boasts a 70% to 80% success rate in maths and science at matric level.

Many of these learners go on to take maths and science-related subjects at university.

“We have received feedback from most of the schools that their learners are passing, which proves we are really doing some good work,” said Sankarana.

But Univen struggles to retain such learners. Mbati says that, although the Vuwani Science Centre produces some top-performing matric learners in maths and science, Univen often loses these learners to other universities.

“You will see these universities camping around some of these schools to take our products away,” says Mbati.

Education for the people
The University of Venda says it is committed to the poor rural communities that surround it and has initiated a community engagement programme that focuses on research, teaching, learning and partnerships.

Univen’s director of community engagement, Dr Vhonani Netshandama, says: “We want all our graduates to have some sort of experience with the community, because our aim is to produce well-rounded graduates who can solve problems in their communities.”

Netshandama says they encourage lecturers to avoid the traditional method of teaching with a lecturer dishing out information to students. “We are saying teaching must include taking those students out to communities.

“Students can also learn a lot from communities. We don’t treat them as empty vessels.”

The Centre for Community Engagement is linked to non-governmental and community-based organisations in most villages around Thohoyandou. “The community has been very receptive and we tend to be annoying sometimes because we go to them time and again,” says Netshandama.

At the same time, “we are being approached by many communities requesting our assistance and this influx has actually created pressure on our limited resources”.

This year the Univen Centre for Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation, which facilitates training and development activities in rural communities to enhance public participation, was awarded third prize in the MacJannet Prize for Global Citizenship for its project, Amplifying Community Voices, in the Vhembe district.

The prizes, for outstanding university-based community engagement programmes, are awarded by the Talloires Network. Univen received its award at this year’s Talloires Network leaders conference in Madrid in July.

“Children, youth, women and elderly and various community leaders and other community groups are never engaged in a systematic manner so that they contribute to the planning and implementation of developmental programmes,” says Joseph Francis, director of the centre.

Francis says the Amplifying Community Voices project creates a platform at grassroots community level so that people can influence community-specific and municipal development plans. But he admits that “involvement of grassroots communities in decision-making processes remains largely a pipe dream because of limited consultation”.

The centre develops the communities’ capacity to solve their own problems. “The whole idea of the project is to remove the dependency syndrome in communities and reduce reliance on external assistance. We are taking the university to its rightful owners,” Francis says.

Student politics
Given the poor conditions at the University of Venda’s student residences, you would expect non-stop student protests. But these are rare.

More than 6 000 students are crammed into facilities meant for only 2 000. “This has created massive pressure on the system. The system is now overloaded,” says Thivhilaeli Nedohe, director of student affairs and dean of students.

“We are aware of students who stay at university residences illegally and we can’t ruthlessly deal with them. We understand that these students don’t mean any harm,” says Nedohe.

“I can activate the system to deny them access to the residences but we cannot do that — it’s just inhumane.”

But “this does compromise our management system”, he says. “Since 1994 the university has grown without increasing the infrastructure.

“This remains quite a big challenge for us but we are making inroads.”

A residence for 140 women students is under construction.

Student Representative Alliance (SRA) president Sipho Mashele, a fourth-year law student, says the department of higher education and training is neglecting rural-based universities. “We can see the management is trying to solve some of these challenges, but where is the government intervention?

“Conditions at residences are not good for students but that does not mean we should cause chaos,” says Mashele.

First-year nursing student Tsakani Maringa lives in the Lost City girls’ residence. “It is overcrowded,” she says. “I am sharing a room with my cousin because I could not get a room.”

Selekane Mutadi, a postgraduate student in public nutrition, says his residence, Riverside, shared with undergraduate students, is a health hazard.

Some of these problems have historical origins. “Our premises were for a high school; this ground was not meant for a university,” says Nedohe.

“We have made it a point that students understand where we come from. We have a transparent budgeting process.

“We have responsible student leaders who make progressive proposals. They are the ones who proposed that, to contest a student leadership position, students must have passed their modules with 70%.”

Ndivhuho Mutshekwa, a final-year agriculture student, secretary of the Agricultural Students’ Association and an SRA member, says the criterion of 70% to contest any student leadership is a good practice: “We are in a learning environment and we are admitted here based on merit and score points. I don’t think it’s a problem when leadership credentials are based on marks. You must show that you can lead by example,” he says.

Mashele says: “The issue of academic performance for student leaders is critical. If you fail to gain 70% then you’re not qualified to lead here [at Univen].”

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