Communicating about science and strong materials

Professor Lesley Alison Cornish, director of the Centre of Excellence in Strong 
Materials based at the University of the Witwatersrand

Professor Lesley Alison Cornish, director of the Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials based at the University of the Witwatersrand

The Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials (CoE-SM) is one of seven centres of excellence created by the South African department of science and technology and National Research Foundation. Not only does it coordinate the activities of six universities and government research institutes across South Africa on research into strong materials (materials that maintain their distinctive useful properties under extreme conditions), but it has graduated 53 PhDs, 71 MScs, published 613 journal papers and registered eight patents.

According to Professor Lesley Alison Cornish, director of the CoE-SM, one of the centre’s key focus areas is using cutting edge and exciting research to develop students.

“We leverage a number of communication platforms across a variety of disciplines and academic backgrounds to attract prospective students. Our aim is to communicate the importance of our research into strong materials, and science and engineering as a whole, to illustrate how it will impact South Africa, human capacity development, career opportunities and technological advances,” says Cornish.

Over and above its 613 published journal papers, as well as monthly newsletters, the CoE-SM spends hundreds of hours hosting workshops and visiting schools, universities, career fairs, open days and National Science Week. The aim is to explain the importance of science and engineering and demonstrate its research.

The CoE-SM routinely generates journal papers, conference papers, formal presentations, informal presentations to societies, motivational speeches, book chapters, reports and posters. It even goes as far as having T-shirts printed.

The CoE-SM also partners with the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF), Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Moipane Academy to present specialist lectures on science and engineering to undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as to women in physics. 

One of the CoE-SM’s most successful outreach programmes is its annual competition aimed at sparking interest in science and engineering among Grade 10 learners across the country. Over the years, the competition has become increasingly successful with many teachers using entries as part of their standardised assessments.

The teachers now look forward to this event as a way of stretching their learners and giving them a chance for external exposure. Teachers are also encouraged to be involved with local and international workshops on material science.

The CoE-SM’s methodology is elegant in its simplicity — all research that is scientifically correct must be both repeatable and explainable. 

All experiments are either repeated and/or are part of a suite of experiments which must follow discernible trends and be comparable with literature values or values for similar experiments.  Where necessary, all the raw materials are analysed and, where possible, experiments are performed using different techniques.  Anomalies are studied, and the experiments repeated. 

Only once the work has been finalised and checked is it presented at a conference or seminar to obtain feedback before being submitted to reputable, peer-reviewed journals.

“Overall, we believe that our work is highly beneficial because it showcases science and engineering, as well as the research in the various areas, and exposes this to learners,” concludes Cornish. “While it is not expected that every learner will be attracted to apply for science or engineering, it continues to improve and extend their knowledge of different tertiary education topics, and demonstrates their importance.”