UCT course re-sparks interest in life sciences

27 June 2012 | Story by Newsroom

Nombulelo Nongawuza (far-left) and fellow teachersPractice makes perfect: Nombulelo Nongawuza (far left) performs an experiment under the watchful eyes of fellow teachers Mntungwa Mvambi of Manyano High, Busisiwe Mpisane and Zolani Mtini, both of Harry Gwala Secondary, as well as PhD student Bridget Calder, who, together with her colleagues and staff members, helped run the lab sessions.

Having taught biology - or life sciences, as it's now called - for 22 years, teacher Nombulelo Nongawuza is concerned about the steady decrease in the number of learners signing up for her subject.

"You'll find that in a class of 50 pupils, only 10 are interested in what you're teaching," noted Nongawuza, a grade-11 educator at Bulumko Secondary School in Khayelitsha.

Part of the problem is that there's little opportunity to do any kind of practical work with the learners, mainly due to lack of resources in disadvantaged schools. This may be putting learners off, Nongawuza believes.

To turn things around, Nongawuza and several other grade-11 teachers from Kuils River, Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain sacrificed the first two days of their winter break to attend a short course for life - sciences educators, hosted at UCT by the Schools Development Unit (SDU). The training was organised and presented by the SDU in conjunction with the Departments of Botany, Molecular and Cell Biology and Zoology, and was part of a series of short courses on different subjects for teachers from 25 to 29 June.

The purpose of the training, according to the SDU's Andrew Petersen, is to empower teachers, but also to support the Western Cape Education Department in implementing the new curriculum assessment policy next year, which will require teachers to do more practical work and to conduct a practical examination.

The course is also a response to findings showing that fewer learners are choosing to do sciences at school, and that those who are taking up the subject are struggling.

Developing the skills base of teachers is one way to address the problem. Doing so in a lab at UCT - perhaps far removed from the realities at schools - still has enormous benefits, especially as the course focuses on the use of everyday items in lab work, says Petersen.

"The benefit of being on campus is that teachers get a sense of what the real world of scientific research is like, and will be equipped with skills to support learners in doing effective and meaningful life sciences."

After just one session, Nongawuza had plenty of tricks to take home with her.

"Among the many lessons I've got so far is that you don't always need fancy equipment," she says, "but can take something even out of a dustbin to conduct practical work."

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