By ZIMKITA LINYANA
In South Africa, very few learners receive a quality and comprehensive science and mathematics education at the school level. This can be attributed to many factors, including historical public school resource distribution and the quality of teaching.
Most South African schools don’t have functioning laboratories, and many learners do not own science textbooks over a school year. This is a huge barrier to learning the intricacies of science, biology, and chemistry.
The science taught in school mainly encompasses the fundamentals of science, the basic tenets of all science, and thus, it is very abstract and not easily relatable to everyday life; because of this reality, practical work such as the use of microscopes, titrations, dissecting specimens, and field trips become a necessary and invaluable component to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the concepts. This is only real for a minority of school learners in South Africa, and this then impacts the pipeline of future scientists.
Science centres, museums, planetariums, zoos, and game parks play a vital role in attempting to bridge the gap as they bring science concepts to life. The science festival, Scifest Africa, is a stage where all this can be accessed. Scifest Africa manager Samridhi Sharma says that one of the critical outreach programs for Scifest Africa is Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, for which Scifest Africa provides provincial administrative support.
Scifest Africa manages the District Expos and Regional Expo, which covers areas including but not limited to Makhanda, Port Alfred, Alicedale, Whittlesea, and Queenstown. “In 2022, Scifest Africa initiated a mentorship program for the schools in Makhanda before the Regional Expo to provide learners with feedback, comments, and assistance on their projects, and to promote participation in the Expo,” Sharma said.
Scifest Africa is the biggest science festival in Africa; in less than a week, on 7 September 2022, it returns to its live format in Makhanda, one of the best performing school districts in the province, and a host for the National Arts Festival.
Scifest Africa was established in 1996 to promote public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of science, technology, and innovation (STI). The project is supported by South Africa’s National Department of Science and Technology and other cash and in-kind sponsors. For the past two years, it has been virtual; Samridhi Sharma says that even though the virtual format allowed for a global audience and more accessibility to the festival, “the critical component of the science festival is human interaction”.
The festival identifies and designs unique interactive events and educational resources with scientific integrity to advance science, facilitate learning in an informal and non-threatening way, and provide learners with an excellent opportunity to discover science outside the classroom.
“Back to the basics” is the 2022 theme for Scifest Africa, inspired by UNESCO’s “International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development 2022”.
Biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics are the fundamental cornerstones of any modern convenience, such as technological innovations that help us live seamlessly comfortable lives daily. In the past 100 years, significant discoveries and developments have been achieved in Science, Technology, and Mathematics.
Fields such as artificial intelligence/machine learning, robotics, space science, biotechnology, quantum physics, and nanotechnology have been born and are improving lives rapidly. All of these innovative fields were made possible by the work done in basic sciences. The Scifest Africa 2022 program is taking us back to the basics. Hopefully, this will ignite South Africa’s appreciation of science, the cornerstone of all life as we know it today.
What do “the basics” entail?
Biology is the study of living things and their vital process; biology, as it exists today, has four unifying fundamental principles: Cell theory, Gene theory, Evolution theory, and Homeostasis.
Cell theory holds that each living thing begins life as a single cell and that they are the basic structural unit of all organisms – the human body has 37 trillion cells. The work of cell biologists is to work out what they (cells) all do; the results of this could revolutionize healthcare.
Gene theory is the idea that all traits of living things are controlled by genes, passed on from parents to their offspring.
Evolution theory holds the well-established scientific view that living organisms have a common ancestor and that characteristics of populations of the same species change over time through a natural selection process.
Homeostasis is any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival, such as sweating on a hot day or during exercise, which allows the body to cool down. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if not, disaster or death ensues.
Chemistry is the study of matter, its composition, properties, structure, the changes it undergoes, and the laws governing it. Chemistry tells us that the basic unit of matter is an atom. Chemistry is also concerned with studying elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures.
Physics studies matter and its motion through space and time alongside related concepts such as energy and force. The fundamental principles of physics are the laws that govern the universe. Physics attempts to describe the function of everything around us. When a moving car stops unexpectedly, the bodies of any passengers and objects in the vehicle will keep moving forward; this is why we need seatbelts. Physics explains this to be the result of the principle of inertia. Inertia means that an object will continue its current motion until some force causes its speed or direction to change. This concept of inertia was first described by Sir Isaac Newton in his first law of motion.
Mathematics is arguably the most important science, and Yes, math is a science! – this is because it is central to all parts of our lives. Mathematics reveals hidden patterns that help us understand the world around us. Mathematics today is a diverse discipline dealing with data, measurements, and observations from science; inference, deduction, and proof; and mathematical models of natural phenomena, human behaviour, and social systems. The most important well-known order principle in math is the order of operations, PEMDAS, parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction, which is the order in which mathematical problems should be solved.