Giving teachers a practical hand

17 March 2003

Practically fabulous: From left, Dr Val Abratt, Veronique Suiro-Stheeman and Dr Helen Collett, along with the absent Dr Cassandra Miller-Butterworth (currently in the US), are the authors of Practical Biology: A Classroom Resource for Teachers, based on a workshop they have been running with school teachers for the past six years.

FOUR current or former UCT scientists are celebrating the recent publication of a new biology resource book for senior schoolteachers, using the transcribed contents of a workshop they have been running with such teachers for the past six years.

Two weeks ago, Veronique Suiro-Stheeman, formerly with UCT's Department of Botany and currently based in the United Kingdom, flew in for an informal “launch” of Practical Biology: A Classroom Resource for Teachers with co-authors Dr Val Abratt (Department of Molecular and Cell Biology) and Dr Helen Collett (a post-doc in the same department).

Absent from the luncheon at the UCT Sports Club was fourth contributor Dr Cassandra Miller-Butterworth, formerly with the Department of Zoology and now busy with her post-doc in the United States.

Six years in the making – there have been a couple of production hiccups along the way – the quartet's book contains a series of experiments designed specifically for those biology teachers who have to contend with limited resources and time. The practical activities are based on many the four have been using in their workshops, run at UCT since 1997.

The annual workshop started as a one-off programme with learners from Thandokulu Secondary in Mowbray sometime in 1996, with a teacher requesting repeats of the event, recalls Abratt. Realising, however, that it would not be possible to accommodate large groups of learners at UCT on a regular basis, it was decided to set up a programme for teachers instead.

The workshop soon became something of a feature on the school calendar, and has since its inauguration attracted more than 250 teachers. Over the years, the programme has received support from Peninsula Technikon, UCT's Teaching and Learning Resources Centre (TLRC) (now part of the Schools Development Unit) and UCT's departments of botany, zoology and molecular and cell biology.

A popular part of the workshop was the set of lab manuals the four would prepare for each gathering, booklets teachers were keen to take with them to schools. “We very soon realised that teaching materials were going to be a very important component,” says Abratt.

The four scientists immediately set about writing a guidebook that would comprise the workshop experiments, as well as additional information, covering 15 core activities identified by participants. The final product, aimed at grades 10-12 but also suitable for grades eight and nine, includes chapters on the cell, nutrition and enzymes, micro-organisms, and plant and animal biology.

Understanding that teachers have demands beyond the curriculum, the authors have also enclosed sections on how to set up projects, posters and models, and how to go about recording data and designing graphs. Keeping things fun, smart and easy was a paramount concern, and the volume therefore features games, debates and even a short stage play, penned by Collett, on mitosis.

The experiments and activities not only teach a wide range of practical laboratory skills – which can be used in classrooms – but also give teachers and learners an understanding of some of the basic principles of biology.

“The whole emphasis of the course and the book was to produce easy, obtainable material that teachers could use to do experiments in a classroom environment, and finding multiple ways of teaching in a non-lab setting,” says Abratt. “And for us, as tutors and authors, it was also a way to take an ivory tower institution and use it as a community resource.”

The book, which features a foreword by Dr Mamphela Ramphele (UCT's vice-chancellor when the workshops began), was all but written three years ago, but seemed destined never to hit the printing presses after the project's initial publishers backed out. More recently, aid came courtesy of Francolin Publishers in Cape Town who agreed to publish the volume.

In addition, much of the credit for the publication, says the group, must go the African Forum for Children's Literacy in Science and Technology (AFCLIST), an informal association of African educators, scientists, technologies, media specialists and international resource specialists that stepped in to help with the publication costs.

The book, which will sell at around R80 a copy, will soon be marketed to schools around the country.

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