Christina Scott reports on recent efforts by South African science communicators to build a culture of science in their country.
South Africa's National Science Week, which ran from 13-20 May, has come and gone for another year. Does this mean we can now go back to believing that the earth is flat, condoms cause AIDS and that the laws of physics do not apply to BMWs travelling at high speed in the rain?
Absolutely not, says Brian 'Bugs' Wilmot, director of the annual science festival known as the Sasol SciFest that takes place in Grahamstown each March.
"Ignoring the need to promote science would be criminal," says Wilmot. "Without it, we will damn South Africa to being yet another begging-bowl state, totally dependent on the charity of those countries which have science, engineering and technology underpinning their economies."
This in mind, SciFest sent a team of staff and multilingual volunteers to spend much of the National Science Week helping with free science lessons in remote schools in the impoverished Eastern Cape region.
"It was an eye-opener," confides volunteer Hlalelani Ringani, a Rhodes University student from the tiny village of Riverplaats in the Limpopo province. "In one high school, the second-year students couldn't use a pair of scissors, let alone glue. The lack of motor skills was a shock."
Poor physical development among children growing up in poverty has been linked to a range of factors. These include inadequate schooling at an early age, a lack of dietary iron, exposure to pesticides and neighbourhood violence, which keeps children inside.
Bad and boring
Ringani and the other volunteers visited schools in Bathurst, Bisho, King William's Town, Cintsa East and Alicedale and were surprised to discover how bad — and boring — classroom science can
Fun with flames: science lessons do not
Credit: Albert van Wyk
"In one high school, students with only a year to go before they graduate were studying photosynthesis, which is usually done at a much earlier age — and they had no clue what it was," remarks Ringani, who at the age of 22 isn't much older than some of the students she was helping.
Although her mother tongue is Shangaan, Ringani could speak enough Xhosa to communicate with the teenagers. Bridging both age and linguistic divides, the young SciFest team inspired hundreds of children in one brief week.
"They learnt that science is not just about textbooks," says Ringani. "You can apply it to your life. They must not think that because the textbook is boring that science is boring."
South Africa only achieved democracy in 1994 after decades of mandatory racial segregation policies that insisted that black pupils could only be educated to become labourers. Although the country has made great strides since, it still faces a daunting task. Other countries in the developing world have had a 60-year head start.
"The finest example of a country that has developed a culture of science is India," says Wilmot. He points out that the first leaders of independent India, including its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, turned their attention to creating science museums soon after winning freedom from British colonial rule in 1947.
"Developing a national culture of science from scratch is a slow process, but the benefits are plain to see. India is now at the global forefront in information technology," says Wilmot.
One of the festival's workshop organisers, iThemba LABS — a nuclear research centre and cancer hospital based in Cape Town — brought some Indian experience and expertise to the science week in the form of educator Arvind Gupta. His workshops, which showed teachers and students how to create inexpensive science toys from odds and ends were oversubscribed.
According to iThemba's Ginny Stone who managed a display raising awareness about nuclear physics, as far as building a scientific culture in South Africa, National Science Week is a drop in the ocean. But then that's also how oceans are formed: drop by painstaking drop.
"A national science week makes everybody focus on science — a little bit, anyway — and it gives schools the opportunity to do free science stuff," says Stone.
Can the week's impact on the public be measured? "Not really," admits Stone, but she argues that South Africa's need is so great that every bit helps as "other countries have decent science teachers and probably don't need to do the outreach so much."
Cynics would argue that unless the impact can be tracked, something like a national science week is a waste of taxpayers' money. But the people working on the ground disagree.
"We have an enormous need, primarily economic, to develop a 'culture of science' in South Africa," says Wilmot. "We can never do enough."