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Our water and our rangelands: Our future, ours to protect - Experiencing National Science Week 2018

Contributions by Thabo Mohlala, Tony Swemmer, Joe Sibiya and Elsa Portanyi
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National Science Week (NSW), a time for South Africans to celebrate the achievements of our country's scientific community, gives scientists the ideal opportunity to share their research with the public.

Research nodes and universities throw open their doors a bit wider to present interactive exhibitions and events.

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Learners attending the NSW launch at Mpumalanga University get to know more about biodiversity and food webs in savanna ecosystems from SAEON interns Elsa Portanyi (left) and Stanzi Letjens (right)

The SAEON Ndlovu Node rolled out four activities for this year's NSW, starting with an exhibit at the official launch at Mpumalanga University in Nelspruit. Visitors embarked on a virtual trip at the Ndlovu Node stand to explore the role of research in the Lowveld Region, with a focus on biodiversity and food webs in savanna ecosystems. SAEON's Joe Sibiya and Regina Lebeya, as well as Elsa Portanyi and Stanzi Letjens, Central European University interns to SAEON, were at the stand to interact with the visitors.

The Ndlovu team (Joe, Thabo, Sally, Regina and Elsa) then visited three high schools in the Ba-Phalaborwa district of Limpopo - Majeje, Nkateko and Lepato. The school-based activities of the week comprised workshops on careers in environmental science, experiments on water density, and interactive activities on South African biomes.

Learners had the opportunity to visit the SAEON Ndlovu Node laboratory where they were taken on a virtual tour of the lab, led by Thabo Mohlala (aquatic scientist). They were also given an overview of the type of research SAEON is involved in by Salome Mthombeni, a Wits University PhD student based at the Ndlovu Node.

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Learners from Majeje High School get ready to transfer the density solution onto a test tube during an experiment conducted in a laboratory at the SAEON Ndlovu Node 

An interactive method, the ‘pebble distribution method', was used to determine which natural resources are used by the community residing in a remote village in Phalaubeni

Workshops with local communities

Four workshops where held with local communities to highlight the role that natural resources, harvested from ecosystems around villages, play in sustaining rural livelihoods. Louise Swemmer (SANParks) conducted two workshops with traditional healers to discuss which plant species are used by healers, and which are in short supply.

Elijan Masango, together with Peace Nkuna, a colleague from the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere NPO, conducted two workshops on natural resource use, with adults and learners residing at a remote village in Phalaubeni. An interactive method, the “pebble distribution method”, was used to determine which natural resources are used by the village inhabitants and quantify the value of each of these.

This year's NSW activities stretched far and wide to showcase South African science and promote awareness of the value of science in people's daily lives.

Reflecting on NSW

SAEON intern Elsa-Marie Portanyi, a student from Sarasota, Florida in the USA, had this to say about her experiences during NSW: 

The 2018 National Science Week was my first year participating in such a widespread outreach effort. I believe that what makes this event special is that it really is a movement of societal progress which nurtures the root - the future generation. My first-hand experience was from assisting in career-focused presentations which took place at secondary schools in townships near Phalaborwa. 

The moment which proved to me that this effort has an impact came from a young girl who found me after the presentation. She wanted to ask me more about marine science. What was impressive was that even though she had never heard of such a field, she had, in a sense, found the topic through her own wonder of what lies within our oceans. This one affirmation that the outreach sparked a potential career path, can only be further appreciated because it may have given her the strength to push herself past the shortfalls which public institutions face. 

As a female in science, it is these types of opportunities that keep my inspiration and wonder lit.

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Louise Swemmer of SANParks conducted two workshops with traditional healers to discuss which plant species are used by healers, and which are in short supply

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