/ 4 July 2024

Advancing Inquiry-Based Natural Sciences in the Amathole East Education District of the Eastern Cape


‘These are things we can directly use in our science lessons, which makes me excited to plan my lessons for the learners’

Nearly 80 natural sciences teachers from the Amathole East Education District (Butterworth) gave up the first week of their mid-year school vacation to participate in an inquiry-based natural sciences training programme conducted by Advancing Knowledge Non-Profit Company (AK NPC). The short course called Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE01) is SACE endorsed, meaning attending teachers gained professional development points, which stands them in good stead when applying for new or promotion posts. 

Two groups of natural sciences teachers participated in the training, namely intersen phase (grades 4-7) and senior phase (grades 8 and 9). The programme was held from 19-21 June 2024 at two science teaching and learning centres (science laboratories) that were built at the education district offices in Butterworth by the Director and Academic Head of Advancing Knowledge NPC, Professor Shaheed Hartley. According to the District Head of GET, Mr Hlalukana: “The inquiry-based course forms part of the education district’s concerted programme to focus on the hands-on practical and experimental aspects of natural science and to support teachers to use science inquiry skills to effectively teach the subject.” 

Eastern Cape provincial education officials, Mr Zihlangu (GET Education) and Mr Mashalaba (STEM Director) both attended the programme and expressed their appreciation and satisfaction with the course fundamentals and the inquiry-based approach employed to enhance teachers’ participation in natural sciences activities. Mr Zihlangu encouraged teachers to make maximum use of this opportunity created by the Amathole East district through its partnership with AK NPC. Mr Mashalaba highlighted the importance of the partnership with AK NPC and the role that its members have played over the years. He insisted that the training must be transferred to teachers’ natural sciences lessons to ultimately improve the science results in the province. 

SACE provincial professional development coordinator, Ms Thembi Majikijela, reported that she was highly satisfied with the programme and the professional facilitation process, and that teachers expressed their appreciation of the value-addition to their everyday teaching. Prof Hartley indicated that the AK NPC team is an experienced group of facilitators that have the skills, knowledge and expertise in natural sciences to support novice and experienced teachers in the inquiry-based approach. 

The facilitators were supported by AK NPC interns and support staff, Saadiqah Fraden, Michaela Willougby, Nabeela Layloo and Melissa Petersen. Teachers were given the opportunity to participate, investigate, experiment, question, be hands-on, creative and have fun in the sessions that dealt directly with the four knowledge areas of the natural sciences curriculum for intermediate and senior phases respectively. The pictures below of the practical sessions illustrate the passionate participation of teachers and their contribution in making the inquiry-based science education programme an enjoyable experience.

Investigating energy & change as a knowledge area of natural science

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The energy & change session (physics) was conducted by Robert Solomon for both intersen (grades 4-7) and senior phase (grades 8 and 9) teachers – senior phase took place on Wednesday 19 June and intersen on Friday 21 June 2024. His sessions were introduced with simple activities that teachers could use as ice-breakers in their science classes. From simple to complex is the challenge that teachers were exposed to during their investigations that dealt with various simple devices to illustrate physics concepts ranging from making cells with salt water, using pencils to conduct electricity, to changing the voltage, resistance and current in an electric circuit. The inquiry-based approach to elicit critical inquiry skills were differentiated for intersen and senior phase teachers — so too were the complexity of the questions and the nature of the scientific activities. 

Teachers enjoyed the sessions and expressed a need for a full course in physics for natural science. As one member of a group of senior phase teachers said: “I would like to attend the full short course in energy & change as we need this kind of practical exposure to make our lessons more interesting and challenging for learners.”

Viewing life & living as a knowledge area of natural science

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The intersen life & living session was conducted by Dawn Faroe on Thursday 20 June 2024 and the senior phase by Fadlie Wagiet on Friday 21 June 2024 — both very experienced facilitators of life sciences. In both sessions facilitators used the curriculum content to illustrate the inquiry-based approach. They used everyday products and resources to highlight science concepts, processes, tests and experiments required by the curriculum. Teachers were guided through the approach in a hands-on format to allow them the experience of conducting the practical work themselves — and to be able to translate this to their own natural science lessons. 

Teachers were exposed to various activities including those that illustrated habitats, human skeletons, food tests, starch testing in leaves, microscopy, chromatography on leaves, etc. During an interview one intersen teacher said: “I enjoyed preparing our own slides to view the organelles of plant tissue under the microscope. This will definitely help me as we have a few microscopes at school but have not used them.” One senior phase teacher said: “I am so thankful for coming here. I have basically got my entire lesson plan for the new terms sorted, with especially the practical work and the starch experiment.”

Delving into matter & materials as a knowledge area of natural science

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The chemistry (matter & materials) component was facilitated by Zaiboen Ahmed (intersen group) and Prof Shaheed Hartley (senior phase group). The intersen group were very excited to be involved in practical activities that highlighted important aspects of the matter and materials component of natural science including chromatography, strength of materials, preparation of carbon dioxide gas, and acids, bases and neutrals. In an interview one teacher remarked: “The practical work and small science activities are interesting and exciting and we can use these activities directly in our natural science lessons. Learners will be excited to have fun with chemistry as we have. One thing we can take from here is that one does not need fancy science equipment to illustrate chemistry concepts and reactions.”

During the senior phase chemistry session, Prof Hartley took teachers on a journey of what inquiry-based science education is about. They were taken from the simplest form of the atom through the periodic table of elements, to the formation of compounds towards chemical reaction and balancing of equations. He highlighted practical demonstration of preparation of gases, like oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, etc. which are important for learners to understand when moving to physical science in the FET phase. Teachers were literally taken by hand and supported during the practical work. Teachers expressed their appreciation for this process with comments like “nobody has ever given us a workshop like this where the facilitators take their time in guiding us to do the practical work ourselves” and “it was like being taught from scratch and everyone making sure that we learnt the skills of how to do practical work”. 

Exploring Earth & beyond as a knowledge area of natural science


The astronomy section of natural sciences was facilitated by Mark Ogilvie for the intersen group and Andrew Firth for the senior phase. Advancing Knowledge NPC staff loaded the latest software for astronomy on teachers’ laptop computers and memory sticks. The intersen group actively participated in a number of activities that dealt directly with this part of the natural sciences curriculum including gathering resources in the surrounding garden, soil and trees. One group of teachers added: “We like these kinds of activities, as our learners would love to participate in collecting things in the surroundings creating resources we can use in the lessons.”

The senior phase teachers participated in activities like building sun dials and telescopes while also exploring the software provided to them. In interviews after the session teachers expressed their appreciation for the programme and the hands-on practical nature of activities in which they participated. As one group agreed: “We have been given new ideas and resources on how to prepare our lessons for astronomy. We are also sharing our contact details with each other and the video recordings we took of the practical sessions. We can assist each other in preparation for this part of the work, especially how to explore more online astronomy resources that would be helpful to each other.”

Evaluation of the course

The following are examples of teachers’ perceptions of the course as expressed in their evaluation forms:

InterSen teachers (grades 4-7)

  • This course has challenged both my current content knowledge and practical know-how and as a result has improved my view of teaching natural science so that lessons in natural science should be practical based to challenge learners’ thinking.
  • Yes, the workshops were very interesting as it made me realise that out of nothing can come something. Learners can learn in a fun way and has made me realise that science education as a profession is very exciting.
  • The practical side of natural science was not my specialty, but after this workshop I feel I am equipped for presenting lessons in a practical way for learners to be hands-on and learn better.
  • I have learnt a lot. As a young science teacher, I needed this kind of support to make my lessons more interesting and exciting. 
  • Yes, as a new teacher in this learning area, I learnt a lot. There were some things that I was not even aware of, like the formation of sedimentary rocks and making a battery using pencils. These are things we can directly use in our science lessons, which makes me excited to plan my lessons for the learners.

Senior Phase teachers (grades 8 and 9)

  • The course added great value to me as it developed my practical side of natural science as a young teacher. It has motivated me to know that science is not just about theory — it’s more understandable through practical work.
  • The course has improved my knowledge and skills doing things practically and now I have a duty to spread this knowledge to my learners at school.
  • I feel I have developed in many areas in all four strands of natural sciences. The way of making a lesson clear to the learners using different approaches.
  • The training was short but I have gained a lot, because now I can use everyday material to make my learners understand science easily.
  • I feel I am more confident to do practical work and my teaching will improve through this programme.

Teachers receive their Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE01) course certificates at the end of the course. 

You are welcome to contact Prof Shaheed Hartley ([email protected]), Academic Head of Advancing Knowledge NPC, should additional information be required.