Investing in human capital

Professor Jan Smit of North-West University is committed to inspiring young minds

Professor Jan Smit of North-West University is committed to inspiring young minds

Knowledge, education, understanding and the development of skills — these are the qualities and attributes necessary for the growth of a country and the people who populate it. With an education and an enquiring mind, a person can tackle the problems of today and create transformative solutions for tomorrow.

However, it takes the patience, commitment and dedication of a teacher to bring the full brilliance of any young brain to fruition and Professor Jan Smit is one such person. His academic educational repertoire extends over 53 years, an impressive achievement, and he has worked with government, schoolchildren, educators and students to deliver impressive results.

Teaching to create understanding

“The first seven years of my career were as a science and mathematics educator where I learned to teach to create understanding,” says Smit, Manager, Science Centre, North West University (NWU).

“The next 20 years were as a researcher in nuclear physics and as a physics lecturer, where I taught across all university levels. Since 1990 I have been working in science, mathematics and technology education.”

The Sediba Project

Smit has done research into the fundamental challenges which impact on science education, establishing the Sediba Project in 1996. The latter was a joint venture between the faculty of natural sciences, faculty of education sciences, the North West department of education and the private sector.

It ran for 19 years and saw 1 283 students graduate. It was named for the Setswana word for fountain —Sediba — symbolising the fountain of knowledge.

Smit’s achievements do not end there, however, as he has also been instrumental in negotiating around 300 bursaries since 2005, to the value of more than R12-million, for Hexagon University students. His constant attention to all his students on the three NWU campuses has ensured an average pass rate of more than 80%.

Commitment to sharing

With his background as a nuclear physics and science education researcher, educator and lecturer, and study leader of several doctoral and master’s students, Smit is committed to sharing his knowledge and his skills in inventive ways, enhancing science and technology education and inspiring young minds.

“I retired as researcher and learned to teach with understanding, devoting myself to science education,” says Smit. “I learned to teach using experimental techniques as I wanted to make a contribution to the country in the realm of science and technology. It is a calling, driven by the appreciation I get from the children and students. I am just responding to something inside of me which truly believes in the education and enrichment of others, and our scientific community.”

Developing policies

Smit has also played no small role in the formulation of natural and provincial policies, something he has been a part of since 1990. He is a firm believer in how science, engineering and technology are at the core of economic growth.

“We are living in the decade of soft electronics and we’re creating an entirely new world for our citizens to live in and adapt to,” he says. “We need to give them the knowledge to fit in, grow and create within this world. There is a lot of work to be done. This has also inspired my involvement with the department of science and technology (DST) and in making contributions to policy for the past 20 years.”

Contributing to science centres

Of course, Smit is an inspiration in his own right. He has developed new apparatus for science centres, created interactive demonstrations, established new science centres and contributed to exhibitions both locally and abroad.

Smit collaborated with the North West education department, technical colleges, the local community, the Tlokwe Municipality, homes for the elderly and factories in the Potchefstroom industrial area to create outreach activities for schools, students and the public.

He also found the time to manage the Science Centre on the Potchefstroom campus at NWU, interacting with visitors and engaging with them, thanks to his in-depth expertise and understanding.

The interactive exhibitions devised by Professor Smit for the Science Centre are a huge draw-card. A recent exhibition challenged visitors to identify spices based on the way they smell and complete a simple questionnaire.

The research has been used to establish the roles of age, gender and smoking on the olfactory organs. It has had more than 1 700 responses so far and the impressive results have sparked an ongoing research project. 

Every exhibit has been designed to be fun for visitors while also leading to the discovery of a scientific law or principle. The results speak for themselves, as does Smit’s passion.

Visitors to the Science Centre include the public, school children, educators and international attendees; the centre averages more than 12 000 visitors a year. Colleagues from Botswana, Lesotho and Kenya have visited the centre with the goal of establishing similar institutions in their own countries.

“I’m always looking for ways to contribute and make a difference,” says Smit. “As a teacher and a scientist, I studied the thinking and brain processes to find ways of promoting thinking in scientific ways, helping students to ignite their passion for learning and finding out more about the world. I wanted to work with youngsters, to educate them and to contribute to their growth and the development of the scientific community as a whole.”