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Empowering young scientists: A mentor’s perspective

By Sharon Thompson, Avian Research & Logistics Coordinator, SANParks
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The SAEON Ndlovu Node held its Grade 10 Science Camp at Stanford Lake College, Haenertsburg from 7 to 9 April.

Biodiversity was the central theme for this year's camp and learners participated in a simple scientific investigation that introduced questioning, reasoning and the scientific method.

For most of the learners this was their first opportunity to be involved with a field-based project, in which learning through doing rather than teaching is encouraged.

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Guided by their mentor, Sharon Thompson, learners collect biodiversity data in the protected Haenertsburg grassland

Under the watchful eye of SAEON MSc student Tracey Johnson, learners assess soil texture, one of the factors that affect soil erosion

Inspiring learners to think outside the box

Since 2009, SAEON and SANParks scientists have together been instrumental in designing a science outreach programme that develops critical thinking, in-depth understanding and questioning among learners. As scientists and regular mentors for the Ndlovu Node science camps, it is our aim to encourage learners to think outside the box.

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SAEON MTech student Thobile Dlamini guides learners in conducting a research project on the effects of overgrazing

SAEON scientist Dr Dave Thompson (front) and SANParks mentor Sharon Thompson assist the learners with species classification

The camps are practically based with several hands-on activities, making the tasks fun and providing an excellent platform for teaching and learning new skills. Even the mentors sometimes get to learn a thing or two!

Shaping emerging young scientists

As mentors we actively participate in two-to-five-day science camps and dedicate our time to exposing learners to current environmental problems and illustrating how science can help resolve these. We strive for learners to learn from asking questions and understanding the reasoning behind complex ideas.

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Mentor Sharon Thompson (right) demonstrates the finer points of data analysis to a group of learners in preparation for a discussion of their projects with their peers

Our focus is to have a positive impact on the lives of these youths and inspire them to pursue a career in environmental science by exposing them to novel, interactive and challenging opportunities.

To date, the SAEON Ndlovu Programme has been a great success. For the learners that enrol, the journey begins as insecure, isolated and fact-driven learners, who leave as confident, engaged and question-driven young scientists and ambassadors for their communities.

For the mentors it is often an overwhelming and intense few days, rewarded by learners that begin to think independently and ask in-depth questions. We have come to realise that we have played a vital role in shaping these emerging young scientists and for us these experiences are fulfilling, inspiring and humbling all at the same time.

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