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SAEON science camp empowers future scientists

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Learners go out on the rubber duck that is used to conduct research (Picture: Joe Sibiya)

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SAEON scientists demonstrate sampling (Picture: Joe Sibiya)

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Learners (above and below) identify animal and plant species inhabiting the rocky shores (Pictures: Joe Sibiya)

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Learners at work in their transect (Picture: Joe Sibiya)

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Exploring new territory -- sampling in a gully (Picture: Joe Sibiya)

- Siphokazi Nonyukela, Communication Intern, SAIAB

Exposed to a variety of activities -- from investigating the weather, temperature and rocky shores to boat rides, astronomy and engineering to career advice and fun educational activities -- the SAEON science camp was indeed a worthwhile experience for the participating learners.

The five-day science camp was a collaboration between SAEON’s Elwandle Node in Grahamstown and the Ndlovu Node in Phalaborwa. It was attended by 24 grade 11 learners from five high schools in Grahamstown and four high schools in Phalaborwa.

The camp was held at the Willows Resort near Port Elizabeth. The resort is situated opposite a rocky shore, which makes it ideal for the learners to perform their activities.

The science camps, which are sponsored by engineering consultants Murray and Roberts, are aimed at nurturing learners from disadvantaged communities who demonstrate potential and enthusiasm for science. The camps expose learners to the importance of science careers, sharpen their understanding of scientific inquiry skills and broaden their experience of the theory and practice of observation and monitoring.

Acquiring vital skills for the future

According to SAEON Elwandle Node’s Education Officer, Nozi Hambaze, learners are taught a variety of skills at the science camp, such as scientific research, computer skills, presentation skills and life skills.

“Learners participating in the science camp have direct exposure to environmental science and direct contact with scientists and researchers,” says Joe Sibiya, SAEON Ndlovu Node’s Education Officer.

Through the science camps learners also establish networks with other learners that are interested in science. “It was great meeting with the Phalaborwa learners,” Vuyokazi Twani, a learner at Nombulelo High School remarked at the conclusion of the camp. “We worked together as a team and taught each other different languages.”

Course presenter Chris McCartney of Bonani Educational Enterprises, advised the learners to challenge everything they are taught in the camp. “Scientists are not scared of being wrong -- when doing science you have to be a critical thinker, so when we tell you something, challenge us,” he told the learners.

On their first day at the camp, the learners were taken to the South African Weather Services for a lecture on weather forecasting. Some of the participating schools have weather stations donated to them by SAEON to study the weather and climate in their schoolyard.

Elwandle’s Node Manager, Dr Tommy Bornman, took the learners on a guided boat trip from the harbour into the sea. He emphasised the importance of harbours and ships in helping move products across the world’s oceans. “I’ve never been on a beach before, and the boat trip was amazing, especially when we stopped to look at the waves and feel the swell,” commented Lovedelia Maedimala, a learner from Sebala Makgolo High School in Phalaborwa.

Scientific sampling procedures and data collection

After the boat expedition, it was time for some hard work. Learners were introduced to scientific sampling procedures and data collection. They were divided into groups to conduct a scientific investigation with the use of a transect line from the low shore to the high shore. The aim was to investigate species diversity of animals and plants inhabiting rocky shores.

The four main objectives of this practical were firstly to gain an understanding of the methods used to sample rocky intertidal communities, secondly to identify common species occurring at the rocky shore site, thirdly to look at trends of zonation along the low to high shore and finally to identify adaptations of species to the physical factors.

“Tides are the rise and fall of sea levels caused by the combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the moon and the sun and the rotation of the Earth,” Rocky Shore Scientist Adrian Evans of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) told the learners. The information they gained from Adrian will equip them to make comparisons between seasons and between communities over time.

The data collected from the rocky shores had to be compiled and analysed through a number of methods. The learners had to decide what type of method best represented the information they had sampled and the combination of results that best described the trends. After collecting and capturing these data, they had to present their findings to their peers, teachers and the researchers. They were awarded prizes for their presentations.

Scientific method

“The scientific method was very informative -- it has given us the basics for entering our projects into science expos and it has prepared us for science at university,” Twani commented.

All learners had the opportunity of visiting NMMU’s School of Sciences where they were given career guidance. Jane McCartney, Lecturer in Pharmacology and Therapeutics told the learners that there was a national shortage of pharmacists. She advised them that “when you make career choices do not be influenced by money; rather be influenced by passion”.

The learners were taught the basics of looking at plant species through a microscope. The Director of the School of Environmental Sciences, Dr Derek Du Preez, told the learners that “if you want to help people, then come to the school of environmental sciences”. He emphasised that a student needs to have passion for the subject to be able to succeed in the sciences.

Retired Astronomer Pine Pienaar demonstrated to the learners that nothing on Earth is stationary, everything is moving, before introducing them to the basics of astronomical photography.

Science camp participants also had the privilege of visiting the Uitenhage Pavilion to explore the different types of Volkswagen cars and how they are constructed.

Capacity building for the future

SAEON runs a schoolyard programme which focuses on the importance of long-term environmental monitoring and observation, to which the SAEON science camps are closely linked. The schoolyard programme aims to ignite the interest of learners and educators in environmental science, to equip educators with hands-on science and mathematics teaching skills, to enhance the availability of teaching resources through schoolyard weather and climate monitoring activities, and to integrate up-to-date scientific information with teaching and learning activities. It further encourages promising young minds to explore science and mathematics and to consider a career in these fields of study.

“99% of the learners who took part in last year’s science camp were accepted for study in higher education institutions across the country; seven of them will be studying towards their Bachelor of Sciences at Rhodes University,” remarked Nozi.

Solomon Johnson, an educator from Ntsika Secondary School said, “The camp was a truly worthwhile experience, especially in terms of the scientific method, which helps the learners to do practical investigation and to write about science projects.” Reply Maluleke, a learner from Lepato High School shared Solomon’s sentiments: “We learned a lot, and I will take the knowledge from the research projects and share it with other learners. I hope SAEON will continue running these camps for the next generation,” she said.

Reply’s comment echoes the words of Berny Snow, a lecturer at NMMU, who told learners at the camp’s prize giving ceremony: “You are the role models, you are the mentors. Help grade 9’s and 10’s – share your experiences, do some of the experiments, be the guides for future generations and persevere in science.”

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