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SAEON supports WESSA in nurturing SA’s budding scientists

By Sinethemba Ntshangase, Intern, SAEON Grassland Forest Wetland Node

Charlene Russell of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) is an “unusual” environmentalist.

Although Charlene believes passionately in the idea of environmental sustainability, she recognises that this can only be realised through development - not in the sense of infrastructure and industry, but in human capacity, and specifically in Mathematics and Science.

Charlene, a provincial manager of WESSA’s Eco-Schools programme in inland KwaZulu-Natal, has turned her vision into reality by establishing the Youth Environmental Science Conference (YESC) in association with SAEON, DUCT (Duzi uMngeni Conservation Trust), the Eskom Expo and SASA (Sugar Association of South Africa). The initiative is funded by PetroSA and Nampak.

The YESC programme brings learners from different schools and backgrounds together to present their science projects to their peers. It has been designed to expose learners to “real” scientists and different science disciplines.


SAEON staff thought of a fun way to make learners aware of the different careers in science - the ‘Know your –ologies, -ists and –icians in Science” exercise, in which learners had to match a science career to a broad science discipline such as Life Sciences (Picture: Matthew Becker)

Identifying South Africa’s bright young scientists

South Africa needs people who are not just literate in Mathematics and Science, but who are critical thinkers with the skills required to use these tools in creating and shaping their world and the society that lives within it. Not everyone is a natural scientist, passionate about learning, capable of investigating issues, asking the right questions and collecting the right information to produce useful answers, but these people are present in every generation, and at every level of our society. Our education system needs assistance in identifying, encouraging and helping these people to become the kind of scientists and decision-makers our society needs.


SAEON Intern Monique Nunes (left) shows learners and their educators how rain gauges (old and modern) work (Picture: Matthew Becker)

Also, these budding scientists need help in identifying themselves as such. Without the necessary background, how can you tell whether or not you’d make a good scientist? Many learners do not even know exactly what a scientist’s work entails and many educators lack the knowledge and experience to pass this information on to their learners.

It is for this reason that YESC is such a promising intervention. In addition to introducing learners to a range of practicing scientists, YESC gives the learners an opportunity to showcase their own scientific investigations. They receive constructive feedback and advice on their projects, methods, results and conclusions, and are encouraged to take both their investigations and science education further.


Members of the Injoloba Eco-Club get feedback on their project from scientists (Picture: Matthew Becker)

Learners and scientists get to share their work

YESC was held at Scottville Primary School in Pietermaritzburg on 28 June. It was attended by learners from a wide range of schools - Mpophomeni High School (Eco Club), Injoloba High School (Eco Club), The Grange Primary School, Rustic Manor Primary School, Northlands Girls High School, Shea O’Connor Combined School, Umthombo Secondary School and Heather Secondary School.


Igniting a passion for science in young minds - Sue van Rensburg, Coordinator of SAEON's Grassland Forest Wetland Node with one of the young prize winners (Picture: Matthew Becker)


Learners from three schools presented the results from their own scientific investigations. These were judged and critiqued by a panel of scientists and individual feedback was given for each of the projects. The scientists, each representing a different field, then presented some of their work to the learners. Hallam Payne, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Life Sciences, spoke about how his career in animal behaviour science has evolved and shared some of the exciting projects and experiences he has been involved in through science.


Nalini Dookie shows learners and educators how to compile a poster for the Eskom Expo (Picture: Matthew Becker)

Dr Jeanne Tarrant, an expert on threatened frog species, introduced the learners to the joys of studying frogs, the importance of frogs as environmental indicators and the risks facing them. Sue J. van Rensburg, Coordinator of SAEON’s Grassland Forest Wetland Node, gave a talk on “What global change means for your science career”, emphasising the need for learners to take responsibility and work harder to improve their science and maths literacy.

The learners inspected the displays set up by a number of organisations and were amazed at what science was able to achieve. A learner from Mpophomeni Eco Club said, “Wow this is fantastic, I’m going to encourage other kids to come next year”.

Based on the success of the first event, YESC will become an annual event on the science education calendar and will be rolled out to reach more learners and educators, informing them about the wonderful world of science.


A WESSA representative explains to the learners how to design and make a solar cooker (Picture: Matthew Becker)


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