/ 2 June 2023

Collaboration key to solving Africa’s science problems

An outreach programme aimed at boosting participation in STEM subjects in Limpopo has highlighted the concerns and dreams of the next generation

Some 3002 learners, mainly in matric, from 57 schools across the Vhembe district of Limpopo province, and their educators, collaborated in a science outreach programme hosted in the Vhembe district by Nelson Mandela University and the University of Venda (UNIVEN) at the beginning of May.

The Vhembe district includes a large number of rural schools and annually produces a high percentage of top matric learners, especially in mathematics and science. On average, half of South Africa’s top 20 matric learners are from the Vhembe district.

What is encouraging is that from each of the 57 schools participating in the outreach activities, the number of female learners outnumbered the males, as there is active encouragement of girls to study maths and science. 

The schools are close to the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, in the Vhembe east and west education districts, including the Niani circuit, Tshilamba circuit, Vhembe west and the Nzhelele education cluster.

The distances covered were vast and the university teams were joined by several exhibitors from national departments and institutions, including: UNISA’s Science Centre mobile lab, the National Research Foundation’s South Africa Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, the South African National Space Agency, the South African Biodiversity Institute; STEAM-SA (promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics using e-learning); the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Agricultural Research Council; the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment; Penreach’s Shalamuka Science Centre( NGO focused on educational excellence in rural communities); among others.

As part of the outreach activities, science experiments and demonstrations were conducted by the exhibitors, and interactive discussions and presentations aimed at fostering a fascination with science and educating learners about “science for society” were held. 

It’s essential to have these science engagements at schools in every part of our country, as the declining number of students studying maths and science at South African universities is of serious concern for the country. Science is essential in achieving a better world through the UN sustainable development goals and the Africa Agenda 2063. 

Regrettably, there is a pervasive belief that maths and science are difficult and most learners drop these subjects. This is a hurdle that we need to overcome together as a nation, just as we have to overcome the problem in many of South Africa’s rural areas where learners trying to study science do not have laboratories.

During the outreach, the Vhembe learners also attended workshops on career guidance, academic requirements for university access and the opportunities available in science-related fields, aimed at encouraging them to consider pursuing science as a career. 

The aim was to expose learners at the school level to what our two institutions offer. Many learners do not know about the many fields of science they can study at university if they get a good university pass in maths and science.

They were therefore informed about careers in astronomy, astrophysics, biophysics, engineering, robotics, coding, data science, data management, mechatronics and automation, to name a few. 

Several postgraduate students and young academics were present and served as role models during the discussion with learners. Several of the female learners commented that they were encouraged by seeing young female scientists who are working on their master’s and PhD research. 

The learners were encouraged to ask questions and they actively did so.

With load-shedding dominating all of our lives, the learners asked about careers in renewable energy, and the outreach teams could give them in-depth feedback. 

Another common question was what they can do if they didn’t do well in grade 11 but they know they are doing well in grade 12. The outreach teams explained that most applications for universities in South Africa close in about August/September, so students can apply using their June 2023 grade 12 grades, provided it isn’t a programme that closes early like medicine. 

We are honest with them and we tell them that they should have been achieving well in grade 11 and before that, because getting into universities is very competitive. The outreach teams also met with grade 11s and impressed on them the need to pay attention to their studies, and how important good grades are.

The learners visibly expressed their interest, and praised the programme’s hands-on approach and interactive activities. It sparked a new level of excitement among them, which will hopefully translate into higher enrolment in maths and science-related courses and careers.

Several of the schools focus on IT, but one of them, Luvhivhini Secondary School, has chosen to focus on agriculture in their curriculum, which is vital for food security. 

During the outreach programme, science academics from the two universities also participated in a collaboration symposium to discuss how to strengthen existing collaborations and establish new partnerships in a wide range of disciplines and transdisciplinary fields, including the biological sciences, chemistry, ocean sciences, microbiology, botany, forestry, agriculture and physics. 

Collaboration will advance our collective capacity to solve problems in Africa by African institutions. 

Professor Azwinndini Muronga is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University. Professor Natasha Potgieter is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Engineering, and Agriculture at the University of Venda. Dr Eric Maluta is the head of the Department of Physics at the University of Venda.

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