/ 1 August 2022

Rural partnerships boost for maths and science education


As higher education institutions we have to partner with schools to encourage more girl and boy learners to study maths and science. South African universities are not seeing sufficient enrolments in these subjects which are critical for research, innovation and the future of work.

In my role as a physics researcher, maths and science educator and executive dean of science at Nelson Mandela University, I am extremely concerned about the state of maths and physical science education in South Africa. 

I have repeated over the years that I am not interested in 30% or 40% pass thresholds; I am interested in quality passes and in increased numbers of female and male matriculants achieving well in physical science and maths. It is, therefore, exciting to see the increase in the number of students from the rural areas of Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo enrolling in the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University. 

We need to work towards increasing science and maths enrolments in all our universities, with learners from all our provinces as well as from other African countries. If we don’t do this, our continent won’t benefit from seeing our own young researchers contributing to major international research projects, such as the SKA and CERN, and new disciplines and growth areas, including computational and data sciences; quantum science and technology; multimessenger astronomy and space sciences; atmospheric and oceanographic sciences; biomaths biostats, biophysics and bioinformatics; genetics; science and technology in society and science communication.

Our rural schools, in particular, require our input to ensure they are not left behind. Partnering with them and with universities in the rural areas is entrenched in our science engagement strategy and, by 2030, our faculty of science aims to have a healthy flow of students from all nine provinces and other African countries, particularly from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region.

Over the past few years, we have been increasing our maths and science engagement with schools and communities in rural areas, starting with Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. We routinely visit and host maths and science exhibitions, workshops and career expos.

In partnership with our faculty of education and professional bodies, such as the South African Institute of Physics, we also coordinate maths and science teacher-development programmes to advance their ability to teach these critical subjects. 

Where there is higher education investment in basic education, from the foundation phase through to the FET phase, we see the results in the improved matric results. From here, we continue to nurture young scientific talent from the undergraduate to postgraduate levels.

Irrespective of government or private funding, we are proactive about collaborations and partnerships that advance our principle of diversity, equity and inclusion in science for access and success. We believe in collaborations and partnerships that are organic, grassroots-driven and self-initiated – not only as responses to grant calls. For example, since the beginning of this year, we have been establishing the Eastern Cape Theoretical and Computational Forum, which is based on equal participation by all institutions of higher learning in the province. The aim is to increase the capacity and skills of our students, educators and academics in theoretical, mathematical and computational sciences. 

Digitalisation greatly assists this, as when we hold forums or training sessions at Nelson Mandela University or at the Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu Science Centre in Cofimvaba,  Eastern Cape, we make sure they are beamed to other centres where groups of learners and educators have gathered, such as at the Vuwani Science Centre in Vhembe, Limpopo, and the Nkomazi Mathematics and Science Centre in Mpumalanga. 

We also do physical visits. In May, our faculty undertook a four-day visit to several schools, communities and royal houses in the Vhembe District of Limpopo, as well as to the University of Venda, where we are developing a partnership with their faculty of science. Our partnership includes science and maths outreach in the deep rural areas of Vhembe. We are also formalising our partnership with the Vhembe District of Education on educator training.

Year on year, some of the best maths and science students in the country are from this district and, as a faculty, we are scouting for rural talent. We do similar outreach in the Cofimvaba, Cala and Mvezo regions of the Eastern Cape, and we are expanding our outreach to Mthatha and Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo. 

Our mutually beneficial partnership with the University of Venda and schools, communities and royal houses in the Vhembe district is also strategically important from an African outreach perspective. Vhembe is at the northwestern tip of South Africa, bordered by Zimbabwe to the north and Botswana to the northwest. Vhembe also borders Mozambique to the east, through the Kruger National Park.

The University of Venda is the closest of all South African universities to the SADC

region universities, and therefore a gateway institution into Africa to attract top students from the region. To make it easy for them to stop over here when they enter South Africa, we need strong partnerships with the royal families and communities. 

During all our visits we pay our respects to the royal families. They are influential partners and very welcoming to us. Historically, the chiefs, kings and queens of this region played vital roles in the education of their communities.

Historically, this region has always been a key point for the continent. In the anti-apartheid struggle, many freedom fighters infiltrated South Africa from here. These communities are the silent heroes of the struggle. They suffered terribly under apartheid as they were targeted for harbouring the freedom fighters or what the apartheid regime called “terrorists”.

During the four-day visit to a number of communities in Vhembe, our group, comprised several representatives from Nelson Mandela University, including student recruitment, the Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre, department of computing sciences, the faculty of science engagement committee, and the director of the School of Natural Resource Management on our George Campus, Professor Josua Louw. 

Our School of Natural Resources focuses on nature conservation, game ranching, agricultural management, forestry and veld-fire management, and wood technology. Most of these disciplines are also offered at the University of Venda, which makes for fertile student and academic exchanges. It is also ideal to offer students more options for their experiential training.

Our two universities are located in very different physical environments, with the University of Venda in a sub-tropical climate and Nelson Mandela University on the coast. Nelson Mandela University also has the only ocean sciences campus in the country and University of Venda colleagues are welcome to spend time there.

On day three we visited schools at the foot of the Soutpansberg where the principal of one of the schools explained that three years ago they introduced a programme on agricultural management and their first cohort is matriculating this year. They were unaware that our university specialises in agricultural management, and if we hadn’t visited them, learners could have missed out on an important opportunity to pursue tertiary studies with us.

Learners in the rural areas often do not have the knowledge they need about what programmes are available at the full range of South African universities and how to apply. When we go to their schools we know we are changing the course of history because suddenly learners have insight as to which subjects and career paths they can pursue and what they need to achieve marks-wise. 

At some of the schools in Vhembe we picked up problems that need to be fixed. When we ask the educators and district officials what the average percentage in maths is, as maths is a key subject in the sciences, and they say 40%, immediately it’s a red flag. We discuss and work on the issues and hand the challenge back to them to improve the marks. As part of our longstanding relationship with the schools we always follow up on their progress and offer assistance.

On the final day, we visited the Vuwani Science Resource Centre in Vhembe which has subsequently won the 2021/2022 NSTF-South32 Award in the Science Communication category. They were awarded for embarking on exceptional education outreach programmes to learners in Vhembe and surrounds, in order to stimulate their learning and understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

At the centre we met a large group of learners and educators who had been bused in from various villages – some as far as 100km away. A computer science student from our university showed them how to do coding without computers. It’s important for us to strengthen our relationship with the centre as this is where schools without labs come to do their lab work. We are building a science centre at Nelson Mandela University and learners will be able to do their lab work there too, to complement what they are studying at school.

In the evening of the final day we visited the Mukula royal family compound. The royal family had invited primary school learners, their educators and their parents to come and learn about science and what science can do for society. Various science activities including coding, robotics and night sky watching took place at the royal compound. We have visited them before as our aim is to establish long-lasting relationships with community leaders, communities and schools.

We also emphasise the importance of embracing local knowledge in the pursuit of solutions to local and global challenges. Having worked in maths and science advancement with many communities for many years, I am motivated by what the right input can achieve throughout South Africa, despite the difficulties. The starting point is a culture of education. We are generally lacking this in South Africa and it is essential to promote it and entrench it.

Professor Azwinndini Muronga is the executive dean of science at Nelson Mandela University

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.