Celebrating staff who go the extra mile
It was a night of glitz, glamour and celebration as Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) celebrated the educators, researchers and support staff who had gone above and beyond the call of duty during trying times in order to ensure that the institution continued to live up to its reputation as The People’s University.
Speaking at the TUT Academic Excellence Awards, Vice-Chancellor Professor Lourens van Staden said the evening aimed to showcase those individuals who had not only excelled in their academic duties, but also made an immense contribution towards improving the quality of research, teaching and learning within the institution and beyond. “The past two years have seen new and remarkable expressions of our community’s dedication, inspiration and imagination,” he said. “The Covid-19 crisis has demanded an exceptional response from all of us, and called on us to be resilient, resourceful, and to think and work flexibly and creatively.”
Van Staden told guests at the red-carpet, black-tie event held in the Theunis Bester Hall on the TUT Pretoria Campus that the Covid-19 pandemic posed unique challenges that had to be overcome: “Our staff members across teaching, research and professional services continuously pivoted in response to new government guidelines, shifting health situations and the evolving needs of our students. Despite this it has been a remarkable year for our TUT community, and I could not be prouder of each and every one of our colleagues.
“Tonight’s finalists for the Academic Excellence Awards are twice as exceptional as they continue to shine in the face of great challenges and constant change. They play an invaluable part in delivering exceptional higher education, excellent research and a first-rate student experience, and these all help advance TUT’s mission to shape a better world.”
The “Academic Oscars” recognised the Lecturer of the Year for each of the university’s seven faculties, as well as awarding the title of Institutional Lecturer of the Year. The awards also honoured researchers, innovators and support staff who excelled, as well as academic staff who had attained new NRF ratings and those who had improved on their own qualifications to set a shining example for their students.
Dr Vati Papu-Zamxak, the university’s Deputy-Vice Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Engagement, agreed that recognition is important. “The past two years have not been easy, but our academic staff have shown incredible commitment and resilience in the face of adversity, and it’s more important now than ever before to acknowledge and applaud that.”
She said the staff were forced to be creative and think outside the box to ensure that teaching, learning and research could continue uninterrupted: “As a university we are known for our cutting-edge research and our accessibility to students. We need to pay more attention to celebrating ourselves and the excellence within our institution, because as a university we have triumphed despite the challenges.”
Professor Ben van Wyk is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Teaching, Learning and Technology. He said as South Africa’s largest contact university, the pandemic had an immense impact on operations. “What we are celebrating with the TUT Academic Excellence Awards is exactly the grit, determination and willingness of our staff to go the extra mile,” he explained. “We have implemented a fully bichronous system, which means a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online learning, with limited mask-to-mask interactions.”
Van Wyk said incorporating and embracing technology in the teaching and learning space is one of the most exciting developments in recent years, despite the fact that this integration was largely forced and accelerated by the pandemic.
The evening ended on a high note, with a renewed commitment to the core ideals of TUT as The People’s University — preparing the students of today to step into their roles as the academic and industry leaders of tomorrow.
Covid-challenges became learning opportunities
The challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic might have discouraged some, but Jade Kallis instead saw an opportunity to combine her passion for teaching and her love of problem-solving to make a difference in the lives of her students. A junior lecturer and site co-ordinator at the Faculty of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) at Tshwane University of Technology’s Mbombela Campus, she was crowned Institutional Lecturer of the Year at the prestigious Academic Excellence Awards.
“It’s so amazing to receive this award, because this level of excellence is something I’ve been working towards my whole career, and to actually get the recognition shows that I am making a difference,” she said. “This award recognises not only the work that I’ve done as a lecturer, but everything that surrounds that — my community projects, how I facilitate teaching and learning, and how I incorporate technology into my practice. It recognises those of us who go the extra mile.”
From an early age, Kallis knew she wanted to be an educator: “I was knee-high and I remember teaching; my students at the time were anything from dolls to sheep! It’s been my lifelong journey, and I wanted to study teaching, but my family decided I should rather do IT. That eventually became my stepping stone to do what I always wanted to do, and tonight is a testament to having fulfilled that lifelong dream.”
She says it’s important to acknowledge those individuals who go above and beyond the call of duty, especially during trying times. “I think it helps to know that what you do and what you give to your students is actually working and recognised, and occasions like this are fantastic because teaching, especially during a pandemic, can be a very isolating and lonely experience,” she said. “That’s why it’s great to be at the awards and interact with my peers who recognise what I’ve done, in a space where we can learn from each other.”
These interactions, she added, are energising and offer motivation to do even better next time. “I’m going to take this pat on the back but it can’t stop there; now I’m going to take it further, because we can’t keep doing the same things year in and year out.” She said she will keep finding ways to make teaching and learning fun, engaging and impactful for her students. “Ultimately, if we do that, then we have succeeded!”
Doing this has been a challenge since the start of the pandemic, but fortunately, Kallis is not one to shy away from a challenge. “In ICT, 90% of the subjects are practically orientated, so it’s mainly computer-based and programme-based,” she explained. “We needed to find new and interesting ways to get the message and learning across, because lessons aren’t always transferable to virtual meeting platforms.”
To combat this, Kallis and her colleagues implemented a WhatsApp teaching method, in which students and lecturers could share screen grabs and screen recordings, as well as pre-recorded and live video tutoring sessions.
Kallis said: “I have always loved solving problems — the bigger the problem, the more the thrill! I think the most rewarding thing is when you’re working with students in a problematic environment like this, and despite the challenges you get through to them and can actually see results. That is marvellous. The ultimate reward is to see students excel — going from not understanding something to seeing them grasp a concept as the ‘lightbulb’ comes on.”
This passion, coupled with innovative out-of-box thinking, sets Kallis apart as an educator fully prepared for the future of education: “We can’t go back to the old way of teaching — that is something of the past. We need to find new, innovative ways to engage our students and make it interesting for them.”
To do this, Kallis has been experimenting with gamification to facilitate learning, especially in theory-heavy subjects that students often find quite boring. “To get our students interested and excited we can use, for instance, an escape room setup that they need to solve in order to progress to the next level; but it’s not just fun, it’s a way to learn theory!”
She believes the disruption of traditional models of education is long overdue. “We need to look at new ways of doing things, and I think Covid-19 came at the right time to shatter the old, stereotypical teaching methods and challenge every single person to step up and find new, better ways of doing things.”
TUT: Recognising and empowering women in research and science
As Assistant Dean of Research for the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Faculty of Science, Professor Yvonne Paul believes that her interest in and passion for health and science is what sets her apart from the rest. Paul was the recipient of the prestigious Woman Researcher of the Year for her faculty at the 2019/2020 TUT Academic Excellence Awards.
She said her passion was sparked more than three decades ago when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child. “Being involved in sports and exercise helped me control my own diabetes, and that got me intrigued,” she said. “Now I’m a registered biokineticist and work mainly in community settings, with diabetes and other health conditions: that is my passion!”
With this background in Health Science and given the global Covid-19 pandemic that impacts on every aspect of life, Paul said research in health and wellness is more important than ever before. “It was very important for me to see how we can uplift or assist the general population to lead a healthy lifestyle during the Covid-19 period, while cooped up and locked down behind closed doors,” she explained. This entailed encouraging good nutrition, exercise from home and other wellness practices, while also looking at primary and preventative health measures.
The awards, she said, work on a numbering system. “They look at the woman who has written or submitted the most output, whether in publications or in books, and the person with the highest score receives recognition for that.”
She said awards like the one she received are important when it comes to celebrating women in research: “As women, I think we are faced with different challenges than our male counterparts, and we wear different hats. Most of us are primary caregivers, and when we go home we also step into the role of wife and mother, while still aspiring to a successful career. I think that in itself is quite a lot to deal with and digest, and for a woman to aspire to and excel in any career is already an accolade. Watching women receive these awards tonight will inspire other women to excel and shine.”
She said that TUT emphasises the empowerment of women, not only to excel academically, but also in teaching, research and innovation. When women are not given a place at the table, society as a whole loses.
Research is key to a better Africa – and world
“It was an interesting and humbling experience for me, because I came here expecting one award, but ended up going home with three!” said Professor Ricky Munyaradzi Mukonza, an associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities’ Department of Public Management, based at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Polokwane campus. Mukonza walked away with the Faculty of Humanities Senior Researcher of the Year award, as well as institutional awards for Researcher in Training of the Year and the Research Capacity Builder of the Year.
Mukonza believes that his passion sets him and his work apart. “The awards I received aren’t for teaching and learning; rather they are for my engagement in research,” he said. “I have been publishing in accredited journals — in the period under review I published close to 10 journal articles — authored and co-authored with my students.”
The award that honours the work he has done institutionally in terms of capacity building, however, is the one that excited him most. “In the period under review I had two doctoral graduates and 14 master’s graduates,” he says. “But over and above that, I was able to initiate a campus-wide research forum that drives research at a localised level, and that is something quite innovative that has not been done before.”
The forum develops and implements a number of programmes and events, presenting seminars that train and assist people on topics such as research methodology and how to get published, as well as facilitating discussions with senior academics and researchers from TUT and other institutions. “We also do activities like Research Week, where we expand our reach to include not just staff and students, but also public officials and the community to engage in research-related matters,” he said.
It’s these initiatives that Mukonza believes got him and his efforts recognised by the university. He said he is honoured that his hard work was being celebrated at the Academic Excellence Awards.
“Research is very important, because research creates avenues for new developments, generates new ideas and fosters new knowledge,” he said. “I had a professor when I studied who told me that if Africa is to develop fully, then we need new ways of thinking; a way of thinking that is informed by research.” He said this opened his eyes to a world of new possibilities. “I realised that it was important, in terms of research, to do my bit, but the most important thing I could do was to train others to do the same.”
This, he said, drives his passion for research and for the training of master’s and doctoral students: “As an institution our aim is not just to generate graduates who have a certificate; our aim is to generate people with knowledge — the knowledge needed to change the world and our communities for the better!”
He believes that through research, that change is possible. “We are crying about so many problems that we as a country are facing, but the question we should be asking is, where should our solutions come from? Solutions should come from us, and young people need to know that they are studying not for a piece of paper, but to become solution providers. After all, if we don’t do it, nobody else will.”
Engineering a parasite-free world, one goat at a time
Dr Takalani Mpofu grew up in a rural village in Limpopo, so he knows the devastation that hits a small community when its animals get sick. It’s this first-hand knowledge that drives Mpofu and his work at the Department of Animal Sciences in the Faculty of Science, where his research deals with genetic resistance to intestinal parasites in goats. He was awarded the Best Doctoral Student of the Year at Tshwane University of Technology’s Academic Excellence Awards.
As a child, Mpofu would assist his father to rear goats and other livestock. “It was such an important part of my daily life,” he said. It was his father’s passion that spurred his own and piqued his interest in animal sciences.
“I wanted to see if among these communal indiginous goats we could have a crop of animals that are genetically resistant to the intestinal worms, because it can cause great economic loss to farmers,” he said. “In a population there will be some animals that are resistant, so I wanted to try and select those animals — that way, farmers won’t actually have to worry about these parasites in the near future.”
Mpofu believes research like his will become more important as public sentiment towards food and sustenance changes. “People are more conscious of what they eat, what their food feeds on, and whether the food they consume is produced in an organic way,” he explained. “The chemicals we currently use to treat sick animals and to mitigate or eradicate these parasites can actually have long-term effects on human health, and I think it’s important to find alternatives.”
That is exactly what Mpofu set out to do. “I think it’s becoming more important that we move towards organic food production and my study helps lay the foundation for that, showing that we can have parasite-resistant animals that don’t have to be given medicines or treated with chemicals.”
He believes his success stems from dedication, hard work and the support of a very strong team that pushes him to challenge boundaries and reach new frontiers. He said while his research has merit, all his peers deserve recognition for the amazing work being done in their respective fields. “I deserve to be here, but so does everyone else, because through the work we do at TUT we are all winners, and I’m happy to be here and represent us all.”
Winners at the TUT Academic Excellence Awards
Jade Kallis took top honours in the area of teaching and learning when she was named Institutional Lecturer of the Year. Dr Christiaan Oosthuizen received the Institutional Merit TLT Lecturer of the Year award.
Juwon Fayomi won the S2A3 Bronze Medal in SET Sciences, while Professor David Katerere was awarded Innovator of the Year: Patent. Professor Riotimi Sadiku was given the Innovator of the Year: Centres, Institutes, Technology Stations and Incubators [CITSI].
The Research Niche Area of the Year Award was a three-way tie between Professor Heinze Klingelhöfe, Professor Julius Ndambuki, and Dr Etienne van Wyk.
Dr H Mason received the merit award for Emerging Researcher of the Year. Professor Ricky Mukonza took the main prize as Emerging Researcher of the Year (Male), and also bagged the award for Research Capacity Builder of the Year. Dr Sibongile Mnisi was named the winner in the category Emerging Researcher of the Year (Female).
Professor FD Dakora received merit awards for both the Vice-Chancellor’s Researcher of the Year (Male) and the Research Capacity Builder of the Year. Dr Topside Mathonsi was awarded Researcher in Training of the Year (Male) while Dr Ignace Toudjeu took the merit award in this category. The merit award in the Researcher in Training of the Year (Female) went to Dr Munyadiiwa Ramakokovhu, with Dr Grany Senyolo being named overall winner in the category Researcher in Training of the Year (Female).
The merit award for Vice-Chancellor’s Researcher of the Year (Male) went to Professor MNB Momba, while Professor K Mpofu walked away with both the Vice-Chancellor’s Researcher of the Year (Male) and the External Research Income Earner of the Year. Professor AM Viljoen took the merit award in the latter category.
Dr Takalani J Mpofu and Dr Omatayo Sanni shared the prestigious Doctoral Student of the Year award, and Dr Opeyemi Oyewo was awarded Postdoctoral Fellow of the Year. The Master’s Student of the Year in Social Sciences went to Makgwale Makgogo.